The Screenplay: Day Sixteen & Seventeen

They say that in order to write great fiction you should read great novels.  It follows that in order to write a great film, you should read great screenplays.   So I hunted down some examples from screenplay writers I admire. Jane Espenson has written for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, A Game of Thrones, and is currently writing for Once Upon a Time.  In my opinion, she wrote all of Once Upon a Time's best episodes last season, including THE best episode: "Skin Deep."

This scene did not make it into the final cut for the episode. It's not essential to the plot, though it does show that Belle (by this time) is completely unafraid of the monstrous Rumpelstiltskin.

Jane Espenson writes her actions and directions very informally.  She's not writing narration.  It's like she's writing a letter, speaking directly to the director, actors, cameramen, etc.   More of the "Skin Deep" screenplay is available here.

For a completely different style of screenplay writing, look at this example from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers:

Suddenly I feel just a bit sorry for Wormtongue.  Yes, he's a traitor, but poor little Grìma probably didn't get enough hugs as a child.  The whole screenplay is available here.

The Two Towers screenplay has four authors cited-- Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, and Peter Jackson.  It's much tighter than Espenson's work.  While Espenson seems to leave space for the actors to adapt her words and directions to their creative impulses, Lord of the Rings does not.

Though it's not obvious from this excerpt, the Two Towers screenplay has many, many directions regarding camera angles and cuts.  Nothing is left to chance-- very different from Espenson, who seems to leave the mess about cameras to the director.

"Skin Deep" is an hour of television, trimmed to forty-odd minutes with commercial breaks.   The Two Towers is a huge two-plus hour film without even an intermission.  Two very different screenplays, but both brilliant.

The Screenplay: Day Fifteen

I spent most of today revising my mess of a screenplay.   As usual, whenever I get stuck, I go back and revise.  Usually once I've sorted out whatever problems there are, my writer's block melts away.  Usually.  Not always. (Some writers label their drafts: Draft 1, Draft 2, etc.  By the time I've finished something, I'm usually on Draft 394* or something like that.)

It's obvious by this point that I won't finish my screenplay in twenty-one days, whatever the book says.  But I'll take it as far as I can before time's up.

*Yes, this is an obscure Harry Potter reference.

The Screenplay: Day Eleven

Writing a hero is sometimes more difficult than writing a villain.  By hero, I mean the main character of the story: the protagonist.

First of all, the reader/audience has to empathize with the hero.  The hero is lonely-- we have been lonely too. The hero struggles against all odds-- we've also felt that the world is against us. The hero triumphs-- we hope we can triumph too.

Shrek is a hero. Why is a foul-smelling ogre so beloved by audiences that he got four movies and a spin-off? Because most people have felt like foul-smelling ogres:  misjudged and shut out. But Shrek finds true love.  If an ogre can find true love, maybe we can too.

Second, some authors make their heroes impossible paragons of virtue.  Stanislavsky said that when an actor plays a villain, he needs to find the one drop of heroism in that villain's blood. Likewise when an actor plays the hero, he needs to find that drop of evil, that hidden selfishness.  The same goes for writers.

Third, most heroes are an "everyman." Though the hero is surrounded by eccentrics, he is usually fairly normal by comparison-- like Alice in Wonderland. "We're all mad here," says the Cheshire Cat. But Alice is certainly less mad than anyone else.

Viki King believes that all heroes are self-insertion-- meaning the author sat down and stuck themselves into a story.  It's easy to see where self-insertion goes wrong.   Just look at Eragon, the annoying kid who has OMIGOSH!!1 A DRAGON and MAGICAL POWERS!!!1 and a HOT ELF CHICK!!!1.  Or Bella Swan, who has a vampire and a wolf-shapeshifter kissing her feet, even though she's about as interesting as a bag of turnips.

This is why heroes are so difficult to write.  They can become so much of an everyman that they lose all originality.  They can become so much of a self-insertion that the author becomes blind to how boring they are.  They can become so sympathetic that they have no spines or faults left.

So give your hero some crooked teeth and a short temper.  Give him a redeeming quality- a sense of humor or a weakness for baby ducks.  Suddenly he's a person.  Suddenly, he can carry his own story.

Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten.

The Screenplay: Day Nine

A minor character is taking over my screenplay.  His name is Renatus.  He is a moody middle-aged magician.  Renatus' niece, Nix, was intended to be the heroine, because people generally find nubile young girls more interesting than moody middle-aged magicians.  (Or so I hear.) I've had this problem before-- a nobody character suddenly sprouts horns or feathers and becomes ten times more interesting than the intended hero.   What does a writer do when a character declares his independence?

Some people  stuff their characters in a box and make them behave.  I don't, since my writing has always been character-driven (i.e. the characters shape the plot, not the other way around).

This is draft three of my opening scene.  (Read the first draft here and the second draft here.)

EXT. MOUNTAINS – NIGHTFALL

A group stands in a circle in a cold mountain crevasse.  One long bundle lies just outside the circle: the shape of a body wrapped in cloth. Snow and ash swirl in the air. By torchlight, two DIGGERS are attempting to cut into the icy ground. RENATUS watches the diggers, shivering. LORENZO stands beside him, with his cloak pulled over his arms and chest.

FIRST DIGGER The ground’s hard as iron, my lord. We can’t get any deeper, not until spring.

SECOND DIGGER It’s deep enough.

LORENZO Aye, it’s deep enough. Let’s be done with it.

RENATUS (huddled inside his cloak) Keep digging.

Lorenzo and the two diggers eye each other. Lorenzo pulls Renatus aside.

LORENZO Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but this is going to be one hellish storm. We’ve got to be moving.

RENATUS I’ll not have him left for the wolves and vultures. He can’t have a proper burial, but I’ll not have anyone disturbing his rest. (loudly) Keep digging!

LORENZO (even more quietly) You don’t owe him anything.

RENATUS I owe him everything.

LORENZO He was a traitor and a coward-

RENATUS Coward. Yes. Coward enough to speak the truth.

The diggers have given up. In spite of their best efforts, they are doing nothing but chipping at the ice at the bottom of their shallow grave.

DIGGER 1 Maybe—if their lordships would use a bit of magic, just a bit of fire to melt the ice—

RENATUS Hell take you all!

Renatus seizes a shovel and hits one of the men with it, then attacks the ground himself. The diggers cower in fear. The torch bearers all take a step back.

LORENZO (quietly giving them a few coins) For your trouble. You did well enough. Start ahead, we’ll be behind you.

He gives directions to the torchbearers and stewards, in the end, leaving only himself, one steward, and Renatus. who is still hacking vainly at the ground.

LORENZO Renatus-Renatus... Come. I’ll help you with him.

Renatus bends over the grave weeping.  After a moment, he stands and together they carry the long bundle and place it into the grave. They take the abandoned shovels and spade dirt and ice over the body.

LORENZO The snow will keep him until spring. We can come back then and give him a proper burial. (reluctantly, glancing at the one steward who remains holding the child) ...What about her? Are you going to finish it?

Renatus turns to the steward, who holds a bundle.  The bundle moves and reveals itself to be a child of two.

RENATUS She knows nothing.

LORENZO Father would—

RENATUS Father is dead. I am head of the house. Give her to me!

The steward hastily hands over the child.

LORENZO But if she knows-

RENATUS I’ll not kill a child! Not for you, not for Father, and not for any man on earth!

He stands by the grave holding the child, who is so wrapped up that only her eyes are visible.

LORENZO But—

RENATUS Get out of my sight!

Renatus seizes a torch with one hand and brandishes it towards his brother and the steward. The child lets out one long wail. Unnaturally bright fire cracks like a whip, singing their cloaks.

LORENZO Hellfire and brimstone—

He seizes the trembling steward and pulls him down the trail. Renatus cradles the child tenderly. He drops the torch onto the grave. Fire blazes up, sparking with gold and blue and purple, until nothing but fire can be seen by the camera.

Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight.

The Screenplay: Day Seven

Though originally I planned to follow How to Write a Movie in 21 Days to the letter, I am now hopelessly off track, mostly due to the fact that the daily assignments got so HUGE that I couldn't keep up.  For example, Day Seven's assignment is:

Guess what?  You're going to write thirty pages today...This will probably be the easiest day so far.  You are not allowed to write for more than three hours.

According to the book, at the end of Day Seven I should have finished my complete rough draft of a 120 page screenplay.  Yeah...not happening.  In fact, after re-reading what I've written so far, my screenplay feels as if it's skimming along the surface of character development and story.  I don't like this.

I should explain that my ideal storytelling device is an 800 to 1,000 page novel along the lines of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or Gone with the Wind or The Count of Monte Cristo.

I don't know how to instill a 120 page screenplay with the depth of plot and character found in a 1,000 page novel.   I don't even know if that's possible.

Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six.

The Screenplay: Day Six

There is a delicate balance that must be maintained when writing "historical" dialogue.  Yes, people spoke differently in former times, but unless the writer is an expert in that period's idioms and expressions, "historical" dialogue should not be attempted.

In other words, if you're not Shakespeare, don't try to write like Shakespeare.

However, this does not mean your characters who are wearing the hoop-skirts of the 1860's should speak like modern teens on Twitter.  (Lik3 will u waltz w/m3??)

Example: the dreadful dialogue between Snow White and Prince Charming in the pilot of Once Upon a Time Don't get me wrong.  I love Once Upon a Time.  But there was some truly clunky dialogue in that episode.

Charming: Snow, we can't keep having this conversation.  She wants to get inside your head.  We're about to have a baby.

Snow White: She poisoned an apple because she thought I was prettier than her.  You have no idea of what she's capable.

Allow me to nit-pick this bit of dialogue.  First problem:  "We can't keep having this conversation" is a completely modern expression.  Second problem.  "...she thought I was prettier than her."  It ought to be "prettier than she [is]."  Third problem.   "Of what she's capable?"  Is Snow White suddenly channeling Yoda?

This scene in "Once Upon a Time" is set in a Medieval-ish fantasy world.  I am by no means an expert on Medieval speech patterns, so I'll re-write the dialogue to remove the modernisms and the truly awful Yoda-ish mess, without lapsing into fake Medievalism.

Charming:  I've told you again and again, the curse was an empty threat.  When our baby is born--

Snow White:  The Queen doesn't make empty threats!  She poisoned an apple.  She hunted me through the forest.  She wanted me to die because a mirror told her I was more beautiful than she was!  What do you think she'll do to my child?

And then my Snow White would throw something at Prince Charming being such an idiot as to imagine that a homicidal jealous witch-queen with unspeakable powers WOULDN'T mean it when she said she was going to curse the world.

Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five.

The Screenplay: Day Four

Since I was still having trouble wrapping my head around the stylistic essence of the screenplay, I thought of a simple solution: imagine it's an RPG.   For non-nerds, that acronym stands for role-playing game.

Yes, I used to do a lot of text-based RPGs online, and they were nothing but description and dialogue, like this:

**The Fellowship emerges into a swamp full of  itchy insects.**

Frodo: I hate mosquitoes!  *scratches madly*

Strider: We don't call them mosquitoes in Middle-Earth.

Frodo: What do we call them?

Sam: Skeeters!

Strider: Midge-flies.

Pippin: ARRRGH!  *disappears under a wave of swamp water*

Frodo: I hate my life.

For some reason, thinking of a screenplay as a formalized RPG makes it much easier to write.

I could go study how Shakespeare used description and dialogue in his plays.  That sounds much more cultured and intellectual.  But to be entirely honest, I have spent more hours pretending I lived in Middle Earth than I have reading Shakespeare.

Read Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Day One, Day Two, Day Three.

The Screenplay: Day Three

Having become convinced that the book is trying to flatten my creative drive under the weight of impossibility, ("Today you're going to write thirty pages! Have Fun!") I put the book aside and tried to make some reasonable goals. First goal, finish the screenplay by the end of the month.  The book says the screenplay must be 120 pages long.  I have 16 pages written, 104 left to go, and there are 17 days left in the month.  104÷ 17 = 6.1.  So if I write 6.1 pages per day, I'll finish it.  That's reasonable.

Second goal, follow the rules and then throw them out the window.  The book lists a lot of rules about the hero's turning point, the crisis, etc, and the precise pages on which these events must occur.  But trying to rigidly follow the hero's journey will only result in a catastrophe like the last three Star Wars movies or the Inheritance Cycle (apologies to any Paolini fans).   I'm going to follow the rules-- and then go back and break them when I revise.

So I'm off to write my 6.1 pages for the day.

Read Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Day One, Day Two.

The Screenplay: Day Two

Today the book graciously informs me that I am going to write twenty pages in three hours.

Twenty pages, three hours.

While I'm at it, why don't I make bricks without straw?    I've always felt that I can't progress in a story if the beginning is wrong.  It's like adding another layer of pyramid on top of a crumbling, uneven foundation.  Eventually the pyramid will fall down.  Or it will turn out lopsided.

This monstrous task makes me want to waste the rest of the night reading Inspiring Dog Stories.

So tonight I am going to defy the book and do what it tells me NOT to do: go back and edit, starting with the opening scene.  Read the first draft here.

FADE IN:

EXT. ROOFTOPS OF SIENNA – LATE AFTERNOON

Red rooftops bake in the afternoon sun. Wind tosses dust and dead leaves across the roof. NIX’S HAND grabs a leaf. She opens her hand and the leaf lies in her palm. CAMERA PULLS BACK to show NIX, a plain girl of 16. She balances on the pinnacle of the roof.

BELINDA (O.S. from below) And when you fall and break your neck, I suppose you’ll expect me to feel sorry for you.

NIX Watch!

The leaf lies in her palm. Nothing happens. BELINDA and PEARL watch from the courtyard below. Belinda, 17, is plump and wearing yards of ribbons and white lace. Pearl, 5, is rocking up and down on her toes.

PEARL Are you doing magic, Nix?

BELINDA No, she isn’t. Come down! You can fail on solid ground just as well as on that roof.

NIX Uncle Lorenzo says heights inspire great feats of magic.

BELINDA (hands on her hips) Uncle Lorenzo also believes the earth is flat and that the ghosts of all the rabbits he’s ever eaten live under his bed. If you don’t come down, I’ll—

Pearl runs for the ladder leaning against the wall. She is half up the ladder before Belinda or Nix realize what is happening.

BELINDA Pearl, come back!

Meanwhile, Nix has still been staring intently at the leaf on her palm. There is a spark. Is it real or a trick of the light? The spark jumps out of her hand.

NIX (shrieks in triumph) LOOK! Look, both of you, I-

Pearl totters along the roof towards Nix. She slips, and grabs Nix’s skirt. Nix loses her balance and she slides down the clay tiles, twisting her skirts. She scrabbles at the tiles with her hands, and grabs a pipe. Nix dangles half off the roof, with Pearl clinging to her. Belinda watches from below, horrified. She runs for the ladder.

BELINDA Don’t let go, don’t-

Under the deep shade of a laurel tree in the courtyard, PASCI rouses himself from sleep, with two cats curled up in the dust beside him. Pasci wears rather grimy white clown’s blouse, frilled collar and trousers. He yawns and dabs his sweat with his collar.

PASCI Little birds are singing. (Lazily he walks over to the ladder, which Belinda is dragging towards Nix and Pearl.) Allow me, lady.

Pasci walks below Nix and Pearl and spreads out his arms dramatically, offering to catch them.

PASCI Smallest bird first.

Pearl lets go of Nix and falls in to Pasci’s arms, giddy and laughing. Pasci sets her on the ground and holds his arms out for Nix.

NIX I think I’d rather take the ladder.

PASCI Brown bird, brown bird, fly down to me.

Nix takes a deep breath and allows herself to tumble down into Pasci’s arms. He staggers, but catches her.

Better?  I think so.  Belinda and Pearl are important, so I might as well introduce them right away.

Read Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Day One.

The Screenplay: Final Prep & Day One

During the month of August I'm working through the book "How to Write a Movie in 21 Days."  I'm almost done with required the prep work, so today I can actually start on the screenplay.

Last bit of prep: write a blurb.  The sort of blurb that would go on a website or the back of a DVD.  Let's look at the IMDB blurb for Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.

Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with eccentric pirate "Captain" Jack Sparrow to save his love, the governor's daughter, from Jack's former pirate allies, who are now undead.

No offense, IMDB, but that's an awful bit of writing.  Maybe Amazon has a better synopsis:

Join the adventures of Jack Sparrow and his nemesis Captain Barbossa.

Captain.  Captain Jack Sparrow.  Surely I can do better than this, although it's hard to write a quick summary of a movie that doesn't yet exist:

AN ARTIFICIAL FIRE

For centuries the Family of Magic has guarded the city, though their enemies have long since dwindled into children's stories.  Now, when the Family’s secret is revealed, their house will crumble...

And the city will be left defenseless.

It's not a brilliant summary but it will do for now.

Moving on to today's assignment: write ten pages of screenplay in two hours.  The point of this assignment is to write badly.  To rattle out ten pages without stopping to think if it's good or bad or staggeringly awful.

...

Two hours after I typed the above, I've written my ten pages.  And most of it is awful.  Sometimes I didn't know what to write so I threw in some death and kissing, because it's ITALIAN.  And there's lots of death and kissing in Italy, right?  Or so all the operas say.

I sort of dread re-reading my ten pages of awfulness tomorrow.

Read Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

The Screenplay: Preparation 4

The book informs me that I am now ready to learn how to properly format my screenplay.

Character names are centered at four and a half inches in from the left. Dialogue goes here, three inches in from the left. Dialogue shouldn't extend beyond a line two and half inches from the right edge of the paper.

This sounds much too complicated, and I'm not sure how to do this in Word without taking a ruler to my computer screen.  Since the book was published in 1988, I assumed these instructions to be a little out of date, and went to Scriptfrenzy.org to see if they had simpler instructions.  They did.

A screenplay consists of dialogue and description.  There is no "writing:"

You can't say, "There was something chilling about the abandoned mansion..."  What you do is show it in a night storm through flashes of lightning.  Then we know it's haunted.

This is a good rule for writing anything.  As Anton Chekhov said, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

FADE IN:

EXT. ROOFTOPS OF SIENNA – LATE AFTERNOON

Red rooftops bake in the afternoon sun.  Wind tosses dust and dead leaves across the roof.  NIX’S HAND grabs a leaf.  She opens her hand and the leaf floats an inch above her palm, then bursts into flame.  The flame sparks gold.  CAMERA PULLS BACK to show NIX, a young woman wearing heavy skirts.  Nix balances on one foot on the pinnacle of the roof.  Suddenly the burning leaf takes on a life of its own and jumps out of her hand.

 NIX No.  No!

(My heroine has just spoken her first words.  Not exactly a Shakespearean entrance.)

The flame dances in the air, just out of reach.  Nix pursues the flame across the rooftops.  She moves like a cat, with no fear of heights.  She runs across an archway over a street.  Below are CHILDREN tossing hoops and STREET MERCHANTS hawking ices and cold drinks.  She chases the flame up another roof, past a window revealing a MUSICIAN singing scales.  Out of breath, she lunges and seizes the flame.  The flame scorches her hand.

 NIX (blowing on her burned fingers) Not today, not today...

Her shoe slips, and she slides down the clay tiles, twisting her skirts.  She scrabbles at the tiles with her hands, and grabs a pipe.  Nix dangles half off the roof.

CAMERA FROM BELOW reveals PASCI lounging on a parapet, looking up at Nix. Pasci wears a fool’s motley of white and black.  His face is painted white.

PASCI Trying to burn down the city, lady?

Pasci spreads out his arms dramatically, offering to catch her.

This style of writing feels very stilted, and writing dialogue for these characters is difficult because I don't really know them yet.  I'm not sure about this opening scene, either.  But as an exercise in formatting a screenplay, I guess it works.

Read Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

The Screenplay: Preparation 3

Today the book informs me that my screenplay will be 120 pages long.  Ok.  I can live with that.  Also according to the book, the following events MUST take place on the following pages:

Page 1: Immediately establish place, time, mood. Page 3: The question or idea that this story will explore. Page 10: What does the hero WANT? (Must relate to the question!) Page 30: Event happens that snatches the rug out from under hero. Page 45: Scene that begins hero's growth. Page 60: Hero must COMMIT. Page 75: ALL IS LOST. (Then...maybe it isn't.) Page 90: Beginning of the end. Page 120: Resolution.

I assume all screenplays do not rigidly follow this pattern, but let's break down The Prisoner of Azkaban to see if it fits this formula.  I don't have a copy of the Prisoner of Azkaban screenplay, so I'll go by events I remember from the movie:

Page 1: Harry's hiding under his sheets, secretly doing his Hogwarts homework. (Immediately establishes the conflict between the magic and the mundane.)

Page 3:  Harry is confronted by enormous dog.  Hears rumours of murderer Sirius Black. (Main question of this film: who is Sirius Black?)

Page 10:  Difficult to tell what Harry wants at this point, but after the Dementors, I think what he wants most is to conquer his fear (i.e. the Dementors).

Page 30:  GASP!  Sirius Black betrayed Harry's parents! (Talk about snatching the rug out from under someone...)

Page 45:  Harry decides he's going to kill Sirius, if he can find him.  Cuz a thirteen year-old wizard can totally take on a mad mass murderer. (This isn't exactly what I call character growth, but it's a new obsession for Harry.)

Page 60:  Sirius snatches Ron. (Harry's going to save him, or die trying!)

Page 75: Sirius has betrayed them!  Lupin has betrayed them!  No, Peter has betrayed them! (All is lost!/No it's not!/Yes, it is!)

Page 90: DEMENTORS.

Page 120: Harry is alone again, but not as alone as before. (Resolution. The main themes of Prisoner of Azkaban are courage vs. fear, truth vs. falsehood, who people are vs. who they seem to be.)

I'm not sure I like this method of breaking down a story.  It seems very stiff and formulaic.   But I'll go with it for now.  If I don't like the results the formula gives me, I can always go back and chuck it out the window.  (I prefer to think of them as guidelines rather than actual rules...)

Read Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2.