‘It’s much more the case that there’s a discussion about what comes next extending a certain way into the script that often gets batted about verbally and then just gets written as opposed to writing it all down with one subset of A, B, C, D, and E, you know? It’s like, “Okay, this will happen, and it will lead to this, and then we don’t know what.”‘
‘That’s true. It’s kinda mushy. We don’t do an outline in terms of mapping out the whole thing but then, on the other hand, we don’t exactly write scene A and then stop and say, “Ok, what’s scene B?”
Yeah, it might be, “Ok, this will happen and lead to this and this and then we get here, and we’ll figure it out.” If we’re writing scene B, we have some clear idea of what scene C might be and a slightly fuzzier idea of what D might be and a vague idea of what the ramifications of that might be – or maybe not. It just kind of falls off into darkness.’
Joel David Coen (born November 29, 1954) and Ethan Jesse Coen (born September 21, 1957) known together professionally as the Coen brothers, are American filmmakers. Their films include Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit.
The brothers write, direct and produce their films jointly, although until recently Joel received sole credit for directing and Ethan for producing. They often alternate top billing for their screenplays while sharing film credits for editor under the alias Roderick Jaynes.
Is your story stuck or running out of juice? We asked screenwriter David Warfield to share his top-secret weapon against flagging momentum: the Set Piece. With over 20 years of Hollywood experience, David has sold screenplays to MGM, written for Warner Bros., and analyzed countless scripts via his story consulting website, storysolver.com. Take it away, David!
Most of us find at some point, despite all our careful plotting and well-developed character motivations, that some section of the script (usually in Act II) feels flat. We sense the audience will perceive the trajectory of the story too easily and we’re waiting patiently (or not so patiently) for things to heat up.
While the term “Set Piece” means different things to different people, and is often associated with big action scenes, à la James Bond, the Set Piece can be any “big” or “memorable” scene. It’s often the scene that audience members are most likely to discuss after the movie. The Set Piece doesn’t usually do a lot to move the plot forward or tell us more about the characters. It takes advantage of the situation that’s been set up thus far and exploits the characters and plot for a sequence of sheer fun, often of “pure cinema.” Another characteristic of the Set Piece is that it may delve into the irrational or chaotic, or deliver the kind of out-of-left-field “I can’t believe they did that” creative blow that leaves audiences amazed or in stitches.
If you find a section of your Act II is falling flat, or that you can’t point to any specific scene or sequence as “memorable,” it may be productive to stop thinking in terms of plot and character, and come up with some wilder ideas that would be just plain outrageous fun to see in your story—something that will cause the audience to gasp in astonishment at a character’s predicament or audacity, something that will make people talk. It’s no accident that some part of the Set Piece makes it into the trailer.
Think of the train wreck in The Fugitive, the crop duster sequence in North by Northwest, Meg Ryan doing the orgasm act in When Harry Met Sally, or the bowling/musical fantasy sequence in The Big Lebowski. These could all be considered Set Pieces, or memorable scenes, ones that have an indelible “wow” effect on the audience. Note that the examples above are not part of the climax, or even of the third act. Like the shower scene in Psycho, the Set Piece can come at any time in the story.
Look at it from this perspective: The writer’s goal is to create a story that facilitates one or more major Set Pieces: unforgettable moments of cinematic energy. In some cases the Set Pieces even drive the story, rather than the other way around! The extreme example is any James Bond movie—films that consist essentially of a string of action Set Pieces—but we may think of scenes as diverse as the puppet sex scene in Team America or Hannibal’s murdering the two police guards in Silence of the Lambs as possessing this quality. Here is where you hold up your end of the pact to entertain and amaze the audience, be it through laughter, passion, pity or terror.
*Article pulled from scriptfrenzy.org**
They are a great authority on script writing…please check them out!
Whether it’s a work of fiction, a poem, or the narrative of a soul, good writing pulls the reader into the reality of its words and imprints an experience in the mind’s eye as real as any staged play.
After 30 years of scriptwriting, I’ve found a handful of techniques that can help tell any story.
1. Establish and maintain a clear voice
In a well-written play, each character has his own speech patterns. Some ramble; some utter grunts. Some use flowery language; others are coarse. If they all sound alike, none feel genuine, and the audience senses a disconnect.
Likewise, our voice — our character, if you will —should not sound like everyone else. We may admire the way another person writes, but if we emulate too closely, we rob readers of diversity and run the risk of presenting only a stale copy.
If we are writing a work that requires more than one voice, we should be careful that no given speaker flips back and forth between sounding like Dr. Spock and Anne of Green Gables. That gets very distracting. Each voice should be distinct and consistent to ensure fluidity and credibility.
This is not to say that a writer cannot be poetic and verbose in one essay, and practical and concise in another. But within a given text or persona, we need to make the voice clear.
2. Speak in vernacular
Characters on a stage need to convey their personalities through the way they speak, and the more natural the speech is, the more accessible the character. That is partly why plays are not written to sound like chemistry text books.
Depending on the venue, grammar rules can and ought to be flexible. Avoiding split infinitives, for instance, is a rule left over from Latin where infinitives are one word, not two. Is it really going to thoroughly unravel the message if I say I need to quickly run to the store for more eggs? Of course not. And half of you probably didn’t catch the “mistake” anyway. 😉
In casual writing, following stuffy, prescriptive rules, with all those “to whoms” and “with whiches” feels like legalese, not a blog post from a friend.
Intentional disregard for a rule can create a timing or mood effect that enhances the writing. Conscious use of fragments, for example, can direct pacing or add emphasis. And it’s how people talk. (Anyone who has ever had to transcribe candid speech can tell you that. Some sentences contain more switchbacks and drop-offs than a hike in the Gorge.)
A word of caution: “natural” is not the same thing as “sloppy.”
It is a mistake to think that grammatical conventions are unimportant. They provide clarity. A communication world without proper punctuation gets messy and confused very quickly. (You’ve all seen the “Let’s eat Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat, Grandma!” example, right?)
Thus we need to know the rules of grammar well enough to know when and how we can break them.
3. Give stage directions
In a script, there are often cues given to the actors as to how they should say their line:
[Sadly], [Hesitating], [While toppling off the desk].
Sometimes we need to tell our readers how to “hear” the lines we are delivering. In casual writing, this usually involves things like bolds, italics, CAPS — em dashes — or ellipses…
These tools, like the tweaks in grammar, aid in a sense of timing or emphasis, which in turn help convey the intended mood.
That said, we can overuse these tools easily. We should write the first draft without all the doodads, and then read it aloud to find out where the natural words of emphasis are.
Are they obvious? Or could someone logically punch up a different word, and thereby change the meaning? If so, add the cue.
But if it is 99% likely that the average reader will interpret the sentence the same way you do, then leave out the markers. It gets too visually busy and pulls away from the import of the words that do receive special font treatment.
4. Show, don’t tell
Although it is occasionally necessary to have a Narrator explain exposition in a play, that’s usually deemed a cop-out for a script writer. Audiences should ideally be able to pick up on the context from the dialog and action.
A well-placed line can give attentive listeners information about the past and clues about the future.
Likewise, we don’t need to say, “This is a story about a youth coming of age blah blah blah…”
We need to paint the story of growth and self-realization through the events and images in our writing. Our readers are smart enough. They’ll figure it out.
We can get our message across without stating and restating the obvious.
5. Leave ‘em hanging
No playwright wants that 15-minute intermission to turn into an opportunity to slip out the back door.
Well-crafted scripts make sure that questions are left unanswered and conflicts left unresolved at the end of each act so that the audience will keep coming back for more.
When writing, we need to be aware of the adrenaline levels of our readers. Are they up? Are they metaphorically on the edge of their seats, wanting more? Good. Time to end the chapter.
Because then they have to start the next one… just to see what happens next, of course. And then they’re hooked for the next umpteen pages because no one wants to put the book down in the middle of a chapter. It isn’t right.
Every writer wants to hear,
It was a page-turner. I couldn’t put it down!
So don’t let them put it down.
Except sometimes you really ought to. One can have too much of a good thing. There are times when you should grant a degree of resolution, a glimmer of understanding, a moment of rest.
But always with the feeling that there is more to come.
Even when there isn’t.
Jeff Goins is a blogger, speaker and author. He is also the Communications Director of Adventures in Missions, an international nonprofit organization.
Originally from the Chicago suburbs, Jeff graduated from Illinois College with a degree in Spanish and Religion. Junior year, he spent a semester in Spain, which opened his eyes to a whole new world.
After graduating, Jeff spent a year on the road with a band. Then he moved to Tennessee to chase a girl. In 2008, he married her.
Jeff’s blog, GoinsWriter.com, is one of the fastest-growing blogs on the web and a well-respected resource for bloggers and writers. In 2011, it won the Top 10 Blogs for Writers award. Each month, he receives over 80,000 visitors to his website.
Jeff’s work has been published online and offline in a variety of publications, including RELEVANT Magazine (which has a circulation of over 150,000) and ZenHabits.net (voted one of Time Magazine’s Top 50 Websites).
Jeff and his wife, Ashley, live just outside of Nashville, TN with their son and dog.
Recently, while on recon for Book Patrol, I discovered Fog in Santone, a short story by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910) set in San Antonio Texas and loaded with morphine. In it, O. Henry limns the nexus of tuberculosis, desperate sufferers, and drug addiction amongst the sick and “sporting class” with lighthearted morbidity.
In contrast to Fog in Santone, At Arms With Morpheus takes place in turn-of the-century New York City boarding house. From clues in the narrative, it is the boarding house located off Madison Square where Porter lived.
In At Arms With Morpheus, which first appeared in the October, 1903 issue of Ainslee’s Magazine under the pseudonym S.H. Peters and in book form in the posthumously published collection, Sixes and Sevens (1911), O. Henry, who was a registered druggist at age nineteen, tells a story about a morphine overdose. It appears to be the first literary treatment of a narcotic OD in American literature; it is certainly the first time that a drug overdose is played for laughs.
“‘Oh, Billy, I’m going to take about four grains of quinine, if you don’t mind — I’m feeling all blue and shivery. Guess I’m taking cold.’
“‘All right,’ I called back. ‘The bottle is on the second shelf. Take it in a spoonful of that elixir of eucalyptus. It knocks the bitter out.’
“After I came back we sat by the fire and got our briars going. In about eight minutes Tom sank back into a gentle collapse.
“I went straight to the medicine cabinet and looked.
“‘You unmitigated hayseed!’ I growled. ‘See what money will do for a man’s brains!’
“There stood the morphine bottle with the stopple out, just as Tom had left it.”
And from there, Billy narrates the amusing trials of keeping the dimwitted, wealthy Southern gent, Tom, alive with the help of citrate of caffeine, coffee, walking him around, and keeping him awake. The amateur therapy hasn’t changed much in a hundred years.
Now, another literary gem is added to the corpus of drug literature in English.
On April 4, 1909, an interview with O. Henry appeared in the New York Times that provides insight in the writing profession and the author’s working habits. Current writers may rush to the needle when they learn what O. Henry earned and how facile a writer he was.
“After drifting about the country I finally came to New York about eight years ago. I have Gilman Hall, now one of the editors of Everybody’s Magazine, to thank for this fortunate step. Mr. Hall, then the editor of Ainslee’s Magazine, wrote me saying that if I would come to New York he would agree to take $1,200 worth of stories annually at the rate of $100 a story. This was at a time when my name had no market value.Yes, since I came to New York my prices have gone up. I now get $750 for a story that I would have been glad to get $75 for in my Pittsburgh days.
[We pause here to contemplate in a swoon the fact that $750 in 1911 is worth approximately $16,000 in 2009, an opium pipe-dream for most writers of any era].
“Editors are just like other merchants–they want to buy at lowest prices. A few years ago I was selling stories to a certain magazine at the rate of 5 cents a word. I thought there was a chance that I might get more, so I boldly asked the editor for 10 cents a word. ‘All right,’ said he, ‘I’ll pay it.’ He was just waiting to be asked.
[Who knew that’s all it took to get a pay raise? Readers who write or edit may now ROTFL].
“I’ll give you the whole secret of short story writing. Here it is. Rule I: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule II. The technical points you can get from Bliss Perry. If you can’t write a story that pleases yourself you’ll never please the public. But in writing the story forget the public.
“I get a story thoroughly in mind before I sit down at my writing table. Then I write it out quickly; and, without revising it mail it to the editor. In this way I am able to judge my stories as the public judges them. I’ve seen stories in print that I wouldn’t recognize as my own.
[Submitting first drafts that are accepted as is. Holy mackerel!]
“Yes, I get dry spells. Sometimes I can’t turn out a thing for three months. When one of those spells comes on I quit trying to work and go out and see something of life. You can’t write a story that’s got any life in it by sitting at a writing table and thinking. You’ve got to get out into the streets, into the crowds, talk with people, and feel the rush and throb of real life–that’s the stimulant for a story writer.”
*Pulled from SeattlePi
Great website, check it out.
Writing and producing a short screenplay has benefits over a full-length. They’re less expensive to make, take less time to shoot, and because of youtube and internet streaming, they can now reach a bigger audience than ever before. But just because they’re short doesn’t mean they’re easier to write. Effectively telling a full story in a short film can be a huge challenge. Check out the following tips to make your next short screenplay a success.
Make Sure the Story Fits the Time Limit
Many short films have lofty ambitions of telling a story spanning generations, crossing continents, and creating new worlds. While some of these elements are great in a short film (see below), writers have to be aware of how “big” the story is and whether or not it can be told in a short amount of time. Some short films whose stories are too expansive end up with a lot of long, messy voiceover to get through the plot. If the plot seems rushed, it might be better as a full length.
Off-Beat Works the Best
Interestingly, strangeness and short films seem to go hand in hand, perhaps because weird and quirky ideas sometimes aren’t enough to sustain a full-length film. That’s why horror, fantasy, thrillers and even romance are better genres for short films than straight dramas. Comedy works fine too, but make sure it packs a punch so it’ll make an impression in a short amount of time.
Remember Your Structure
The most frequent problem in short films is that the script doesn’t follow the three-act structure. Just like in a full-length, the audience won’t feel satisfied unless they are told a full story with a beginning, middle, and end. Shorts tend to have a great beginning because the concept is great, and then they fall apart by the end. A solid story is a necessity.
Embrace the Freedom of the Short Form
The best thing about writing a short is that there’s no time restraint. Short films can be two minutes or half an hour – it’s just up to the writer and director. So there’s no stress to cut anything out or create filler just to hit a time limit. Whatever time it takes to tell the story is how long it’ll be, so stop worrying about page count, and start getting creative with content!
by Rachel Graham
* Go to mixform.com to see more from Rachel Graham
mixform is a great site for information film production, acting, and screenwriting
One-Minute Script Exercise
This writing exercise works well for screenwriters of all levels because it challenges the writer in many areas important to screenwriting such as word economy, image, premise, and storytelling. So much of screenwriting relies on the writer being able to say as much as he or she can in as few words as possible while at the same time developing story, character, and theme.
Go for a walk and take note of all things and people you see. Who do you see in the park or at the hospital or in the school or the doctor’s office or wherever you happen to be? Watch the interactions of the people around you. Make detailed notes. What does their body language say? What do their facial expressions convey? How does the way they dress or the actions they perform provide you with insight into their personalities and relationships?
Next, look for comparisons in these scenes. What does their behaviour remind you of? Are there larger social, economic, religious, or political implications in their actions? Think about the ways you can mine theme from the images you see in the world around you.
One-Minute Script Exercise
1. Write a one-minute film with one location, no dialogue, and no more than three characters.
2. Sound effects may be used, but the story must be told through visuals and action.
3. Ensure that your story is self-contained (avoid writing a scene) and that it has a theme. In other words, your story should mean something outside of itself—it should have a point.
4. The length of your script should not exceed two pages in proper screenwriting format.
Written by Kathryn Mockler
* For more from Kathryn Mockler please go to canadianscreenwriters.blogspot.com