How I spent my summer

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In between rewrites, I’ve mostly spent the summer writing a metric fuck-ton of one pagers for various people. It occurs to me there are two mistakes I’ve repeatedly made when asked for a one pager and I thought I’d share them:

  1. Get carried away and write an entire treatment
  2. Only write the single page

The first one is bad because it’s too much detail, potentially veering too far away from the movie the client is imagining from our prior discussion and probably disappointing them.

The second is bad because I’m trying to summarise a movie I haven’t really thought through yet.

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The client only wants to see a summary, to them it’s a simple process – just dash out a one pager; but until I know what the film is and how all the bits fit together it’s just a jumbled mess of nonsensical drivel. In order to get to a point where I know what to summarise I need to write a separate document covering everything in the film.

I’ve learnt this through bitter experience. Writing the one pager and nothing else tends to leave me with a document which rambles on about nothing very much. Usually it goes into great detail about the first act  and maybe mentions the resolution … whilst completely ignoring all the things which make the film watchable. I need more information before I can start.

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I’ve gone through several iterations of this process and hit upon a method which works for me. In essence I try to plot out the entire film in moderate detail, usually covering:

LOGLINE
CHARACTERS
THEME
CENTRAL IRONY
PLOT

And then break it down into sections:

OPENING IMAGE          ]
INTRODUCTION           ]= all of this is Act 1
INCITING INCIDENT  ]

ACT 2a

MIDPOINT

ACT 2b

LOW POINT

ACT 3
CLOSING IMAGE

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You could look at this as essentially filling in a form, or somehow straitjacketing the creative process … but I find it reassuring. It’s the skeleton of the movie, in much the same way a horse and a cat have a similar mammalian skeleton with four limbs and each limb having five bones, two bones, one bone. They have the same underpinnings on paper, but are completely different in real life.

Being a creative process though, although I fill in each section, I don’t necessarily fill it in in a specific order.

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Sometimes I start with the character, sometimes a vague notion of the plot, sometimes the central irony … it just depends. To give you some idea, I thought I’d run through how this process might have led to Pitch Perfect, if I’d been fortunate enough to work on that film.

So I’d probably have started with a vague idea. I think there was a book called Pitch Perfect. I also seem to remember that was a more factual affair about collegiate a capella (an unexplored arena, good starting point) than a story … but let’s assume that’s the genesis of the idea and that we know we want it to be a lighthearted, feelgood comedy.

So I’d probably think about character next – what’s the best/worst character to be in a collegiate a capella movie? Obviously someone who’s in college, that makes sense. The central irony and logline need to be tied up in this too. A bad logline would be something like:

An a capella group enter a competition and win.

It’s bad because … who give a shit?

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People care about people – that’s the number one rule here. I’d need to find the right person to hang the audience’s interest on. I need to think it through:

Barbershop is a kind of a capella, so maybe that’s an angle? Another way of describing it might be close harmony singing.

Close harmony.

So what if the central irony of the lead character is someone who doesn’t like being close or harmonious? What if it’s about a lone wolf forced to join a pack for some reason?

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Now I’ve got the edge of an idea for the protagonist, the irony and the logline. I can temper this more by thinking about the theme.

We have this lone wolf who has a (as yet undefined, but probably musical) goal, but can’t realise it until she’s part of a pack. So what’s the theme? Something to do with individuality? Maybe she’s scared of losing her individuality but learns to enjoy losing it?

Nah, that doesn’t sound right?

What if the theme is about balance? What if it’s about an individual who learns how to be an individual within a group? Maybe being an individual isn’t working for her and maybe subsuming her own personality doesn’t work for her either … so it’s all about finding the balance, about living in harmony.

Ooh, balance and harmony are musical terms, that’s good.

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So if the protagonist is a lone wolf who learns how to be a lone voice in a choir, then who’s the antagonist? Maybe someone on a rival team? If we have a rival team then we have a rivalry and maybe there needs to be a competition? If there’s a competition then what we have here is a sports movie – that kind of dictates the structure, so maybe we can fill in bits of the structure?

The MIDPOINT could be when they scrape through a preliminary round; and maybe the LOWPOINT is when they’re kicked out of the competition or the group falls apart? Why would they fall apart? Well, because they’re not functioning as a group properly – either they’re all individuals or they’re all the same when they need to be individuals within the group?

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So maybe that makes the antagonist someone in the group who wants everyone to be exactly the same? Or maybe the antagonist is someone who is too far the other way? An even loner wolf?

Fuck it, why not have both? One can be captain of our team, the other can be captain of the rival team. It could work either way here – our protagonist could be at loggerheads with her captain because they want to be more individual or less individual … but less individual makes more sense. So let’s go with that.

Let’s also add in a love interest, that makes sense. Let’s put the love interest on the other team to add tension. Maybe he or she has the balance that our protagonist is missing? Maybe he’s the rebel who learns he can have friends, like Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club? Maybe not, but maybe we can reference that somehow?

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So if there’s a love interest then the LOW POINT will also involve them falling out … because that’s generally how love stories work.

Other characters, well … if this is a sports movie then maybe this is the Dodgeball-type team of misfits and losers? Everyone likes cheering for the underdogs, so let’s make them all weird and individual. Let’s give all them flaws which make them not really fit in and have them all gel because of their differences.

And then I would start filling in character names and assigning broad names to the acts. Act 2a might be the training. Act 2b might be the falling apart because they’re trying too hard to be the same when their strengths lie elsewhere. Then I’d drill down into those acts a little deeper, maybe break each one into a couple of sequences?

The opening image might be this person on their own, the closing image is probably her winning (or not – sometimes the best sports movies have the protagonist lose at the end … so long as they gain something they needed more than winning) and being happy.

Only when I have ALL of that information do I start writing the one pager. I want to be able to describe the whole film, understanding what the key sequences are and how everything begins and ends.

My one pagers tend to be formatted like this:

phone number and email address in the header

TITLE
A [genre] film by me

 

Logline

A really interesting person has to do something ironic in order to achieve interesting results.

 

Synopsis

Here I start with who the protagonist is, what she wants and why she can’t get it.

Then I go through the first act in moderate detail and summarise act 2a making it seem as fun or scary or sexy or as whatever the genre is supposed to be. Act 2b is really just a list of complications and obstacles building up to a seemingly insurmountable low point. I usually skip the actual events of Act 3 in favour of covering the mechanics of how the protagonist has to change in order to win the day.

I purposefully leave out the events of the third act because I want someone to be interested enough to commission the script. Some people think you should include the events of the ending, I’m not saying they’re wrong I just think a few unrevealed details create intrigue and that the change in the protagonist is usually more interesting than what they punch, blow up or marry.

In the case of Pitch Perfect: Beca needs to realise she can be an individual within the group and accept her place as the leader in order to pull the group together and win the competition. We don’t need to know what songs they mash together or how they perform them.

Finally I finish off with a brief description of what the film is – a lighthearted, heart-warming comedy about blah, blah, blah which teaches us stuff and does something interesting.

 

The point of all this work just to write a brief synopsis is to make sure I understand the story before I summarise it. And it shows, it really does. Not all of this detail goes into the one pager, but the suggestion of it is there – the feeling I know exactly what’s going to happen to who and when, that writing the script is going to be a mere formality because I’ve got it all worked out … when I haven’t.

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What I’ve done is summarise a map and if Ronin taught us anything, it taught us that the map is not the territory.

Talking about the map in detail can trick people into thinking you’ve already walked the route … but, and this bit’s crucial, it doesn’t give so much detail it clashes with the film in their head or seem like the details are set in stone with no room for their input.

That’s how I do it anyway. It seems to work for me.

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Categories: My Way | Tags: , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “How I spent my summer

  1. This is brilliant, but it’s pieces like this that make me think I want to write a screenplay. It’s the four unfinished screenplays that make me think I should take up bricklaying.

  2. David Anderson

    Many, many thanks, Phill. I read all your posts and, for me, this is your best one ever. I really need to study and apply this.

  3. Writing a synopsis before writing the film is as hard as writing a comment before you have thought of a good analogy. Err, did that work?

  4. Pingback: #P̶h̶o̶n̶e̶ MeetPhill – Meeting #3: Michelle Lipton, Paul Campbell and Piers Beckley | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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