Monthly Archives: February 2015

Reasons and things


Story

I may have said all this before, I may not. To be honest I tend to get a bit confused nowadays and can often be found wandering the aisles of my local supermarket in my pants demanding to know where Kevin went.

But that’s another story for another time.

What I may or may not have said before is this:

I’ve been thinking about structure a lot recently and looking for shortcuts to my writing process which I can apply to scripts/stories which don’t appear to be working properly.

As I said last week, I like the three act structure. It makes sense to me … but it’s fairly useless when it comes to writing a script because it’s the story-telling equivalent of saying this is how it begins, then some stuff happens for ages, then this is how it ends.

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I’m quite fond of looking at animated features when I’m musing on structure because I think they tend to get it right far more frequently than anyone else (Pixar/Disney in particular) so I was delighted when the excruciatingly awesome Michelle Lipton pointed me in the direction of this by Michael Arndt:

Which pretty much sums up how I think about beginnings but using much more better wordences than what I can.

That’s the first act sorted … but what about the rest of the film?

To me writing a script is a process of breaking it down into ever smaller chunks. A sentence which sums up what’s going on becomes four bits (act one, act two (a), act two (b) and act three) which becomes eight bits which becomes umpteen scenes which finally becomes 100+ pages.

At each stage, I try to find names for the bits.

Well, not the pages. I rarely name the pages. Unless I’m feeling exceptionally procrastinaty: Anna, Bruce, Caitlin, Devon … only 106 more to go!

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At the four-bit stage I’ve taken to experimenting with:

SET-UP
WRONG THING/WRONG REASON
RIGHT THING/WRONG REASON
RIGHT THING/RIGHT REASON

… which seems to work for me. Now I know in the grand scheme of things this is equally unhelpful for creating a story, but it helps me to break the story into chunks so something changes goal/personality-wise on the long plod through the second act.

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Take The Incredibles as an example (because it’s superb). The set up follows Michael Arndt’s video (more or less. Mostly more) and establishes Mr Incredible needs to come to terms with the loss of being a superhero and the gain of having a family. Or perhaps integrate the two?

WRONG THING/WRONG REASON – Mr Incredible lies to his family and sneaks off to be a superhero again. This gets him into a lot of trouble and puts his family in danger.

RIGHT THING/WRONG REASON – working together, they beat the bad guys and get off the island. This gets his family out of danger … but isn’t the answer. When they get back to the city, Bob is still trying to keep his family life/super life separate. He’s still driven by fear.

RIGHT THING/WRONG REASON – only by fully merging his two lives and allowing his family to help him can they work together to beat the bad guy. He can be a family guy AND a superhero!

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Wreck It Ralph’s another great example:

THE SET UP – Ralph wants to be accepted by the ‘good’ people in the game. He wants to be thought of a hero.

WRONG THING/WRONG REASON – he tries to steal a medal because he thinks that’s what make the Nicelanders like Felix. He can’t see the cause preceding the effect.

RIGHT THING/WRONG REASON – Ralph helps Venelope attain her goal for purely selfish reasons, to get the medal back. He’s doing what a hero would do, but not why the hero would do it.

RIGHT THING/RIGHT REASON – Ralph tries to sacrifice himself to save not just Venelope but the entire arcade. He is a hero.

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I’m not sure if this always applies to all stories, but it seems to apply to the kind of films I like to watch and tends to be a useful tool to get me thinking about my own stories.

I don’t really believe in universal rules or solutions … but I do believe in stocking my toolbox with a variety of ways of getting the job done and at the moment this appears to be working for me, so … you know … it might be worth a go?

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Categories: My Way, Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | 4 Comments

Three acts – why not?

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This week I’ve been listening to/reading about writers who rail against a three act structure – it doesn’t apply to my art, it’s constrictive, it’s prescriptive, it’s just plain bollocks …

I’ve never quite understood the problem. To me the three acts are BEGINNING, MIDDLE and END … don’t all stories have those?

Except Mr and Mrs Smith, which I seem to remember just stops at the end of the middle.*

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But generally, all stories have a beginning, middle and end, don’t they? They might not follow chronologically, but all three bits should be there.

“Aha!” people exclaim, righteously pleased with themselves for having out-thunk me ” MOMENTO doesn’t follow the three act structure and that’s a great film!”

Well, yes it is … but it still has a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning is a murder, the middle is a ‘why did/will he do it’? and the end is when the story concludes and we understand what did/will happen.

Still three bits to my brain.

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Generally the beginning and the end are shorter than the middle, that makes sense to me.

Beginning: this is a story about someone who wants something but can’t get it because of reasons.

Middle: this is all the things they go through trying to get the thing they want.

End: they get it. Or don’t, in a way which is fairly permanent.

That’s it, three acts.

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“Aha!”

Oh fuck, it’s him again.

“Shakespeare wrote in five acts and Shakespeare is awesome so therefore the three act structure is wrong!”

Well … maybe. I don’t have any Shakespeare to hand (at the time of writing this) but I’m fairly certain those five acts will divide up into beginning, middle and end.

Maybe acts one and two are the beginning, three and four are the middle and five is the end? Or some other combination, but I’m fairly certain there’ll always be three bits.

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Every time I read someone who propounds a five act structure, on closer examination there turns out to be three acts broken into smaller bits. People break the beginning into two bits: before and after some kind of inciting incident (which seems to be what Shakespeare does, if memory serves). Then they break the middle into two bits and call them different things. Five act people rarely seem to divide up the end, but sometimes they do.

The other advice which comes with the three act structure is exactly that: chuck in an inciting incident halfway through the first act – in other words, introduce us to the main character before you start changing things for them. After the inciting incident, maybe have them worried about accepting that change before taking the plunge?

the-change-curve (1)

In the middle, maybe consider changing something around halfway through? It’s a fuck-long way from the beginning to the end, so maybe get to halfway and pull the rug out from under them? Or in someway alter the story to stop it being monotonous?

At the end of the middle, it’s dramatically satisfying to make the audience thing everyone is fucked. Then they win. Maybe.

That’s all the three act structure is … but still people rail against it and I think the problem is the word ‘act’ – it’s either misleading or completely the wrong word.

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What is an act?

To me, it’s a place where you could cut to an ad break or close the curtains for an interval or otherwise just pause for a da-da-daaaaaaa! moment.

And that’s it.

I guess we should feel free to divide it up anyway we like to help us write it … but when we’re discussing it with anyone, it helps to think in three acts because the three act structure is just a codified way of talking about the components of a film. It’s the beginning, the middle and the end … with a few handy signposts along the way which *most* satisfying stories hit.

Most. Not all, just most.

So why is the idea of a beginning a middle and an end so offensive to some writers?

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* Lots of films seem to struggle with the concept of a beginning, middle and end. Like HANCOCK which has a beginning, middle, end and then another beginning, middle and end. Or CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER which has a very clear beginning, middle and end … and then carries on for another hour because there are apparently there are still story-extraneous Nazis who need punching.
The lesson I learnt from these is to try to put the end of the story at the end of the film. Like all lessons, it’s easier to say than to do.
Categories: Industry Musings, Someone Else's Way | 4 Comments

Fancy free

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The other day I heard Footloose described as a guilty pleasure.

Why? Why is liking Footloose a guilty pleasure? What’s wrong with Footloose?

Some people seem to think it’s this cheesy teen dance-movie … but have you actually sat down and watched it beginning to end recently? It’s an awesome movie with some really nuanced and poigniant moments.

Okay, so there’s the cheesy “I’m so pissed off I have to dance” moment. And there’s a cheesy-ish montage. And maybe the final dance is a bit cheesy … but overall the film really isn’t.

To me, Footloose feels like it was meant to be cheesy, like Dean Pitchford was given the assignment (I don’t think it was an assignment, I think it was a spec – loosely based on a real story, if memory serves) of writing a cheesy teen-dance movie and instead handed in a script which is all grey areas and no absolutes.

No one in the film is right or wrong. There’s no villain. John Lithgow is, nominally, the antagonist, but he’s not a bad guy by any means.

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All the characters have satisfying arcs … except Sarah Jessica Parker, but … fuck it, you can’t have everything.

Take some of the potentially more cliched scenes:

The love-interest’s boyfriend shows he’s the unsuitable suitor by hitting her.

Well, yes … but actually she hits him first. The scene starts with him pissed off at her because he thinks she’s cheating on him … which she is. She hits him. He hits her back. She smashes up his truck. He loses his temper and hits her again to make her stop.

Violence is (almost) always wrong … but who’s in the right in that scene? Is it good girl/bad guy or is it more nuanced than that?

What about the town hall scene?

Kevin Bacon makes an impassioned speech to the council about dancing, using their terms and their religious text to make his point. A more cheesy film would have him win and then go straight to the dance … but he doesn’t win. He loses. You rarely change people’s mind with one speech, no matter how impassioned. Life’s not really like that and neither’s Footloose – so it takes a more difficult route to the final dance.

Kevin Bacon (sort of wins) when he goes to ask John Lithgow if he can take his daughter to the dance … but John Lithgow isn’t humiliated. He’s not taught a lesson and he doesn’t really change his mind – he’s still terrified and uncertain at the end.

litgow-wiest-before

Every scene is like that. Nothing’s clear cut. It’s not pro-teen, adults are stupid. It’s not dancing is the be-all and end all of living. It’s not even chock full of super-amazingly good looking people. I mean, yeah, it’s a Hollywood movie and everyone’s attractive … but no one looks like a model.

I love it. It’s a genuinely great movie with a few cheesy moments and 80’s songs … but it’s easily one of my favourite films and one I can watch again and again and again.

In lesser hands it would have been a cheesy piece of shit. It sounds shit … but it’s really not. And it shouldn’t be a guilty pleasure – it should be a fucking joy to behold for everyone.

Plus, if you don’t at least tap your feet to the theme tune then you’re clinically dead.

Categories: Random Witterings, Someone Else's Way | 1 Comment

Okay google

I love technology. I love gadgets. I love how they make simple things slightly more complicated but cooler. In particular, I love mobile phones.

People who know me well find that amusing because of my outspoken hatred of mobiles for many, many years. I hated them. I found them intrusive and unnecessary and socially destructive … but, as I often say, if you’re going to change your mind, change it properly.

The best way to change your mind isn’t by increments, it’s by swerving wildly from one extreme to the other.

Probably.

To be fair though, the point at which I changed my mind coincided with the point at which phones stopped being just phones and became cameras and music players and Internet portals.

mobile-phone-texting-autocorrect-omg-i-gotta-tweet-this-apocalypse

Nowadays I use my phone for emails, for satnav, for web browsing, as a remote control for the telly (and our lounge lights), as a camera (a 3D-ish camera, even!), for messaging and as a calendar … but rarely for phone calls. When it rings, I’m surprised – what the hell is that noise?

From a scriptwriting point of view, I still hate mobile phones. I hate how they can deflate dramatic situations – why is he running across town? Why doesn’t he just phone her? Why doesn’t she just google how to pick the lock? How come all these people keep running into trouble in areas with no phone signal?

I also hate sitting in cinemas while people are checking their phones. Presumably they’ve paid to be there, why aren’t they watching the film? And if they haven’t paid to be there, I fucking have! Turn it off!

Or maybe don’t?

Maybe it’s time to use this technology for mischief?

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Apparently 60% of smartphone users own an Android device. If you think that’s incorrect and believe close to 80 or 90% of people have iPhones then you probably work in media of some description because, for some reason, everyone in media has an iPhone.

You may choose to believe that’s because they’re the best phones on the market or because media-folk are unusually susceptible to marketing, depending on your point of view. Neither of which are probably correct.

Anyway, according to official(ish) figures, 60-odd percent of smartphones are Android and (as far as I’m aware) all Android smartphones can run Google Now and a significant proportion of them are always listening for the words “Okay Google”.

For those of you who don’t have an Android phone (which given the media-focus of this blog is probably everyone reading this), Google Now is the Android equivalent of Siri, but a bit more intrusive and Big Brother-ish. It watches you, it collects information, it makes frighteningly accurate suggestions about things you might want to do, visit or be interested in and … it listens.

“Okay Google” is the activation phrase. Say it while the screen is on^ and the phone responds to any command you give it. No buttons need pressing, no other action is required.*

It occurs to me that it’s our civic duty as scriptwriters to abuse this technology wherever possible.

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I hereby call upon all our writers worldwide to include the phrase “Okay Google” in every film from now on … and follow it with something embarrassing and/or annoying.

Feel free to be as creative as possible here.

“I understand you! I just disagree, okay? Google it, call mum and see if she gives a fuck, because I fucking don’t.”

At which point, a small proportion of people watching the film will find their phones dialing their mothers. The ‘it’ probably won’t register since there is a slight lag between saying the phrase and the phone activating.

Why not call a henchman ‘Google’ because he’s dead clever and knows how to find all sorts of shit. Then you can crowbar in phrases like:

“Enough’s enough, okay? Google, send John a message, I can see you … want to hurt him.”

If you make the pause between ‘you’ and ‘want’ big enough then a small percentage of the world’s Johns will get a text saying “I can see you.”

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Or why not include a phrase like … butt plug? The phone will search for anything it doesn’t recognise as a command. Best case scenario, it will read out the Wiki definition of ‘butt plug’ to everyone in the cinema. Worst case, Google Now will spam the fuck out of them with ads and articles for butt plugs forever more.

I think the potential here is limitless. It’s our civic duty to do this. If we work together we can really, really annoy a small handful of people worldwide … which, when I put it like that sounds slightly less appealing.

Plus … I’m not really sure it would work.

Still, it would amuse me and sometimes that’s all that matters.

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^ I’ve just found out some Samsungs do this with the screen off, which is even better. I guess other phones must do it too?

* I think Siri does it too, but I’ve no idea what the activation phrase is. “Hello Siri” maybe? I think I heard that somewhere … kind of hard to get into a script. Cortana … no idea. Sorry.

Categories: Bored, Random Witterings, Sad Bastard | 4 Comments

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