Beyond Good Vs. Sucky: The Archive


This was my very first attempt to break down writing into different categories and give a list of advice on each.  Still lots of good stuff here.
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Beyond Good vs. Sucky, Epilogue


I just broke down some of the hidden reasoning people may have when they say they like or dislike your screenplay. Well, once upon a time, things were simpler. Regular reader Hans noticed this artifact that recently turned up on Boing Boing. Essanay was the short-lived silent film studio where Chaplin made his best shorts. It seems that they were very upfront about what they liked and disliked in a submission. A lot of their checkboxes aren't that dissimilar from my modern version...
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Beyond Good vs. Sucky, the Conclusion: Theme

Okay, so now we’ve arrived at the last and least. No one is ever going to say “I hated your script because I hated the theme.” They might complain about the tone, which isn’t the same thing, but the best way to maintain a consistent tone is to know your theme.

I addressed theme recently and mentioned that the best summation of a movie’s theme should take the form of a question, not a statement. A theme is a sphere of discussion. It’s an organizing principle. Is this vague enough for you? Well, that’s fine, because your theme, unlike everything else we’ve covered, is allowed to be vague. Theme is a feeling, not a fact. When they criticize you by saying, “I didn’t know why I should care about anything that happened”, you may have a theme problem.

So what is theme anyway?:

  1. Something to say: Pretty simple. Why did you write it? Why did you choose characters with these problems? Why did you choose this setting? Are these people and places and problems you know something about? Do you have a healthy respect for the complexities of this problem? Is the problem just an obstacle or is it a real conflict? Does the hero have to confront himself or merely confront someone else? Is there a nut buried deep inside your story that you yourself don’t know how to crack? There should be. Shakespeare was the all-time master of theme. He only wrote tragedies about problems that he had no idea how to solve, and we love him for it.
  2. Morally coherent: Not the same thing as “a moral”. Now, obviously, if you read the latest spec screenplays that sell these days (most of which are helpfully posted as pdfs over at ScriptShadow), you’ll notice that this one has pretty much gone out the window. I don’t mean to sound like a crotchety old man, but you don’t need to be a Calvinist to be concerned about the current trend towards nihilism in big-money screenplays. Producers are betting big on an endless torrent of gung-ho hitman movies, despite the fact that America has shown little interest in this trend at the box office. Of course, you can make a great movie about anybody, even a hitman—just ask the French poet laureate of hitmanship, Jean-Pierre Melville. But Melville was not himself a nihilist. He was making movies about nihilism. There’s a wee difference. You need to have a coherent moral position in relation to whatever subject you’re writing about.
  3. The way the world works: Or another way to put it: sophistication. This one is tricky. Obviously if everybody acted the way real people act, then nothing very exciting would happen. You’re allowed to push that line, but your story becomes much stronger if it still somehow reflects the realities of fate and fortune and human nature. This is why they don’t like to hire writers who have undergraduate and graduate degrees in filmmaking: The fear is that they’ll have no sense of how the outside world works.

So that’s a round up of nineteen different qualities that your readers may have in mind when they tell you your script either rocks or sucks. Remember back when you thought this would be an easy job? At this rate, you might as well work.

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Beyond Good Vs. Sucky, Part 5: Dialogue


Every year, no matter which movie wins the “Best Editing” Oscar, some chucklhead says “How could you say that that movie was well edited—it was over three hours long!”—as if all an editor did was make movies shorter (and the shorter the better). Likewise with the Best Screenplay Oscar: “How could that movie win best screenplay, the characters all sounded stupid!” Because that’s what writers do: craft flowery dialogue. “Forsooth! I am wounded mightily!”

On the other hand, it’s amazing the degree to which nobody mentions dialogue during the development process. The fact is that dialogue, before it’s in the mouth of an actor, is embarrassing. Nobody critiques your dialogue because nobody feels qualified to discuss it. Only actors care about dialogue. They’re the ones who have to say that crap.

But just in case you end up with that rare producer who cares about dialogue, what are they really talking about?:

  1. Bounce: You’ve got to hit the sweet spot. On the one hand, you can’t allow people to listen to each other too much—each character only wants what they want, but you don’t want them to just talk at each other either. They listen to each other just long enough to bite back. The dialogue needs bounce. Nobody gets to run with the ball—this is hot potato, not football. No speeches. Let them step all over each other. Bounce is the number one way to make a screenplay readable. It’s fun to read dialogue that bounces.
  2. Verisimitude: BUT, people also want dialogue to sound realistic—sort of. Really, they just want it to feel realistic. We want the ring of truth. Leave out the ums and the ahs and the coughs, but pay close attention to the things that people don’t talk about. Re-create the circumlocutions that people use to avoid topics— That’s the sort of quirk that you want to capture. Transcribe actual dialogue and identify the little tricks, traps and euphemisms that people use when they talk—that’s how you give the reader the pleasant buzz of recognition.
  3. Pithiness: You’ll note what not on here: Floweriness or Profundity. Those are no-nos, even if you it means that you get laughed at when you win an Oscar. The closest you’re allowed to get is pithiness, also known as quotability. Little bits of dialogue that pop—that earn a “hell yeah” or an “awww” or a “that’s cold!” Trailer dialogue. Best-movies-of-the-decade-montage dialogue. You can’t try too hard to do this or you’ll fall flat on your face. The best way to get strong dialogue is to have a strong character. The best feeling in the world is when you’re shocked at what comes out of your own character’s mouth.
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Beyond Good vs. Sucky, Part 4: Structure

So we’ve talk about nine different types of qualities that people might be evaluating when they say “I liked it” or “It blows.” Today, let’s talk about another whole bundle of worms: Structure. Most writers loathe structure. It’s the last thing they think about and the hardest thing to learn. On the other hand, you also have writers like me: structure junkies who enjoy breaking down the outline more than writing the finished product. Shun us all you want, society, we have our theories to keep us warm.

What we talk about when we talk about structure:

  1. Beginning, Middle and End: Sounds simple, right? Oh, but it’s not. The hardest thing for many people is figuring out how to start at the beginning and end at the end. As John August said: you don’t have to win the war, you just have to blow up the Death Star. The Iliad ends abruptly a few days before the Trojan horse gambit. What a deleted scene! But Homer had come to sing to us about the wrath of Achilles. And so the poem begins the moment the wrath begins and end the moment the wrath is sated, lopping off the end of the war. Kill your darlings: Serve one story. Begin at the beginning. End at the end.
  2. Escalation: But before your story ends, it’s got to build. The more you focus your story on one problem the more you realize that this one problem has to grow large enough to carry your whole world on its shoulders. They only way to get it there is to escalate like crazy. Throw away the map, take away the safe spaces, and never, ever apologize. The world you’ve created is going to end in two hours, so there’s no reason that it shouldn’t feel like the end of the world.
  3. Set Up and Payoff: Producers love set up and pay off, but writers, directors, and especially actors all secretly loathe it. It’s a lot of work and it’s not very natural to mention something just to set up a reference later, but you know who really loves to see it work? Audiences. Back the Future is the all-time king of the clever pay-off. I counted 32 different facts that get causally mentioned in the first half hour, every one of which gets a super-smart pay-off once Marty is in the past. When it’s done well, it’s sheer delight to watch. Another example: at the end of Aliens, weren’t you glad that you had seen her use that loading contraption before? And when she put it on again, didn’t you say “Aw hell yeah!”
  4. Tautness: And it all adds up to this, the most elusive quality of all. Cut out the fat, make every scene dependent on every other scene, come up with an ending that’s unexpected and yet inevitable… Do whatever you can to earn the most prized compliment in the business: “It’s taut!” The best thing about a taut screenplay? They’re terrified to re-write it for fear of unraveling the neat little bow you’ve tied for them.

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Beyond Good vs. Sucky, Part 3: Story

As I discussed yesterday, your story is the sizzle, and the characters are the steak. This is the sexy part. And it’s the democratic part. Anybody can come up with a good story, and if you’re a good talker you can even get people excited about it. This is why swindlers run “pitch fests” where they invite one and all to pitch their ideas to Hollywood producers. Such shenanigans are based on the concept that an idea does 90% of the job. Unfortunately, the original idea will only provide about 10% of the ultimate quality if the movie ever gets made.

But... a good story idea is the best way open doors all up and down the line. Even big time agents, managers, producers, and studio heads can get seduced by the notion of latching onto a unique idea so clever that the movie just writes itself. They should all know better, but they don’t. So ideas are huge—for getting you in the door. But if you want to stay there, you’d better learn to actually write.

What we talk about when we talk about story:

  1. Hook: A great hook is a simple premise that nobody has done yet but everybody who hears it thinks “why didn’t I think of that??” Wedding crashers? Sold. With two words, it’s already a funny concept—one that you may never have heard of but you can imagine how it would work. You can see the poster in your head and guess half the jokes that will be in the trailer. For better or worse, movies are more and more hook-driven because there are so many chefs in the kitchen. The person you pitch it to has to re-pitch it to twenty other people. Only strong, simple ideas survive that process. Of course, even if you don't have a great hook, you can still tell a great story, but you'll need to cash in a lot of pre-established clout in order to get it made. If your concept isn't the hook then your name has to be the hook.
  2. Size of the Stakes: Some ideas are too big and some aren’t big enough. Sometimes too much is at stake: “We need to defeat evil itself!” Other times, too little is at stake: Shattered Glass is a well-made movie, but the stakes are laughably low-- “You’ve endangered the reputation of a vanity-project magazine that they stopped selling on the newsstands twenty years ago!” As Iago might say: “He who steals that purse steals trash.”
  3. Linearity: You can have as many subplots as you want, but ultimately there needs to be one big story that starts in the first scene and ends in the last scene. Sorry. 99% of good movies made anywhere in the world are about one person’s problem. Why try to squeeze though the 1% gap?
  4. A Steady Stream of Reversals: One problem with hook-driven movies is that they get sold based on one big twist. But then the studio that bought it has to sell it to an audience, and the only way to do that is to repeat the process: reveal the one big twist in the trailer, at which point the movie isn’t worth seeing. Great narratives don’t just turn on a dime, they bend and twist and unravel and snap back together. A good story has five or six great reversals in it, enough so that they don’t all end up in the trailer. See again: Wedding Crashers. They exhausted their hook a half hour in and didn’t have enough reversals to get through the movie. Great trailer though.
Coming back to the original point: Some people will read your whole script but judge you only on the inspiration and not at all on the perspiration. So when they say “It’s great!”, be aware that they might just mean “I can already see the poster!” (And when they say “It sucks!”, they might just mean “Who’s going to want to see a movie about a bunch of coal miners in flyover country?,” no matter how well you told that story.)

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Beyond Good vs. Sucky, Part 2: Character

So let’s break down 19 different kinds of quality that every story gets judged on. Every single one of these is the going the very most-est important thing to some reader you encounter somewhere along the line, but totally meaningless to someone else. You have to please them all, if you want a sale.

Let’s start with the most important category: character. (Although there’s a big caveat here: character is the biggest factor that determines whether or not they like your story, but it’s the least important in determining whether or not they read your story. Everyone, from producer down to consumer, selects stories based mostly on plot, but how much they enjoy them is determined by how much they liked the characters.)

But what does the reader mean when they compliment or put down your characters? Remember: they don’t know. They just know if they liked them or not, but they won’t know why. You, with your super-special training, have to ask the right questions to determine which aspect of character creation you either aced or flubbed.

Aspects of Character: (this isn’t every aspect, but these are the top five...)

  1. Sympathy: I talk about this a lot on this blog. It’s important. It’s huge. It’s also something they never mention in film school. (It’s gauche, dontcha know?) Not the same thing as “likability”. Read my Hero Project posts and many more.
  2. Amount of personality: So what’s the difference? This second category isn’t about quality, it’s about quantity. You can send your characters on the most painfully true-to-life journey in the history of fiction, or give them brilliantly incisive wit, or whatever, but it still doesn’t matter if they’re not big enough. Nice or mean, funny or grave, they need to pop. Don’t be afraid to make your character a little over-the-top on the page. A good actor will know to tone it down, and a bad actor will only convey half of the personality you’ve created, so either way, you’ll be covered. Here’s a classic test: read the screenplays without the character names. Can you still tell which character is talking? If not, they need bigger personalities. But keep in mind, the goal is usually to make them big without being overly broad. Indiana Jones has a lot of personality, but he’s still not a broad character.
  3. Uniqueness: “I’ve never met anyone like your character before” isn’t always a compliment. On the other hand, it’s never bad to hear something like: “I’ve met people like this but I’ve never seen one in a movie before.” I’ve known quite a few acid-tongued misanthropic doctors, but I didn’t see a great one onscreen until House. He was totally original but instantly recognizable.
  4. Motivation: This is very, very tough. The audience doesn’t always have to know why every character does everything they do, but you have to know. This is where it’s better to show and don’t tell. I’ve written many posts about it and there will be more to come.
  5. Depth: Very hard to get across on the page. Give the character tough decisions to make and them let surprise us in the end. But don’t let them change quickly—Roll the rock way uphill before you release it. (And don’t mistake murky motivation for character depth—they’re not the same thing!)
Put it all together, and hopefully you’ll end up with a great performance like this:
Dare to dream.

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Storyteller’s Rulebook: Beyond Good vs. Sucky

So it’s time I came clean: my movie watching time is just gone, man, gone. Through December I’m gonna be pretty damn busy. So how do I keep the blog going? With a lot more of what Lou Grant derisively called “think pieces”. If that doesn’t float your boat, come back in a few weeks. But otherwise...
So you’re finally ready to show off your manuscript. And… And… And… ...they like it! They say “It’s really good!” Your first inclination is to say “Great!” and hang up. Lock that praise away. Put it in the bank. Let it appreciate. But then you call back that other friend you gave it to and ask them what they thought. They hem and haw, but finally they come clean: “I thought it kind of sucked.” Now you want to hang up even quicker, and never call back.

But both conversations are just beginning. The good/bad report is somewhat useful to you. It’s nice to know what overall impression certain individuals are getting from your story at this stage, but it’s not exactly news you can use. And it doesn’t mean very much. Because every reader has different unconscious priorities. Those qualities that ring the “good” bell for them may not be appreciated at all by someone else, and vice versa. If someone is nice enough to read your stuff and let you know what they think, see if you can’t push them a little further and figure out what they really meant by “good” or “sucky”. By my count, there are at least 20 different qualities they may have in mind, divided up into five categories. Yes, folks, it’s time for another list:

Character:

Sympathy

Amount of personality

Uniqueness

Motivation

Depth

Story:

Hook

Size

Linearity

Reversals

Structure:

Beginning, Middle and End

Escalation

Set Up and Payoff

Tautness

Dialogue:

Bounce

Verisimilitude

Pithiness

Theme:

Something to Say

Morally Coherent

Reflects the Way the World Works

This week I’ll define the twenty parts and give some example of movies that succeed and/or failed to deliver on each.

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