Saturday, February 24, 2007

Brainstorming the Synopsis

Welcome back! So you've got a great idea for a script, and you followed my last recommendation for getting started:

Write down what the movie audience sees. Action. Visuals. Try to tell the story without telling us what the story means.

Good job! Some of you have pages and pages. Some of you probably have a paragraph. Whatever you have, it's fine. There are only two absolutes in the world: Everything Tastes Better With Bacon and Start Where You Are.

Now we're going to start brainstorming MORE story for you, and making sure that your story works on film. And we're going to use the three-act structure. Why? Because it's what audiences are used to. It works in films. It works in short stories and novels. It works in Greek tragedy and detergent commercials. It's more or less what the human brain is wired for. Many of you are resistant to you, because it sounds like a formula. It CAN be used like a formula. But when it's used to support creativity rather than tap it down, it's an incredibly useful tool.

It's this simple:

Bob falls in love with Karen.
Bob fights for Karen.
Bob marries Karen.

Now take a look at your own story, and find the on-screen moments that "book end" your script. What starts the script, and what ends it.

Why is that a better story than Bob falls in love with Karen, Bob fights for Karen, Bob gets a job out of state? Because there's UNITY in the tale. The beginning tells us what the story's about, and the ending should satisfy that question. Screenwriters often know what the ending of their story is -- the big message, the big climax, the big pay off. And because they know that, they know where to start.

Take a moment and ask yourself if the question asked at the opening is really answered by the event at the end.


1. Look JUST at the opening. Come up with three scenes that answer the questions asked. Remember, use just the action and visuals an audience will see on screen.

2. Look JUST at the ending. Just like before, use only what a movie audience can witness, and come up with three new openings.

What's the most dramatic combination of all these options?

I'll bet money it's the points that are as FAR AWAY from each other as possible. Now you've got an opening and an ending that are probably farther apart than they were originally.

3. Push it again. What's ONE CRUCIAL DETAIL about the MAIN CHARACTER that make the journey from beginning to end even MORE OF A STRUGGLE?

It looks like I've left out an absolute: Drama, it appears, is the distance (physical, emotional, or otherwise) a character travels in the course of a script.

More soon. Feel free to post your beginning and ending moments in the comments section. I'll be happy to comment on them!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Getting Started

Putting pen to paper is difficult whether you're writing a short story, a letter, a poem, a play or anything else. Screenwriting is no exception. In fact, screenwriting offers the writer unique opportunities for resistance and procrastination. While the short story writer can bang his head against the wall over what his character is thinking at a certain point in time, the screenwriter gets to bang her head against the wall figuring out what her character is thinking, and then again the next day figuring out how to communicate this on film. A poet determines his own formatting, and can vary it poem to poem. A screenwriter needs to communicate clearly with a ridiculous variety of professionals, from directors, to actors, to producers, to art directors, etc. The novelist produces a complete character. A screenwriter produces a great role -- a place for an actor to bring his own creativity. That seemingly subtle difference is worth nights of worry all by itself.

So how do you get started? One word: STORY.

So many of my clients get a decent idea, then jump straight into a script. And they get a great 30 pages. And then they get dug in. And then there's thirty pages of great scenes, but you aren't quite sure how to get from one to the next. And then they write another thirty pages of dialogue and exposition. And you know you shouldn't, but you'll think of something better later. And then you get depressed. Then you put it away for a few months. Then it's New Year's and you're drunk enough to resolve to finish it this year. And now it's February and you're still casting around for straws. Sound familiar? There's an easy way to avoid this problem, and it's called a synopsis.

A story that doesn't work on a single page is almost never compelling on 120. It HAS to make sense. (And it has to make sense without your characters taking breaks every 10-20 pages to tell each other and the audience what they're feeling and why.)

We'll explore synopsis over the next few posts. But just for today, ask yourself the hard question you've been avoiding:

What the hell am I trying to say?

What drives you to write this particular story? Can you put it into a few words? A single sentence? Write it down, and put it away somewhere.

Next, write your story, in just regular old words. There are no points for style here: just get it down. But there are a couple rules.

* Don't talk about themes. No "this is a story about good and evil" or "in an epic battle between the average Joe and City Hall".

* Don't generalize.

All you're going to write is WHAT THE AUDIENCE SEES ON SCREEN. What actually happens?

If you're in the middle of a script, write what you've got.

If you're trying to figure it out, just let fly. Don't censor yourself. Just get whatever comes out down onto the page.

More soon...

Friday, February 16, 2007


Welcome to Scriptwrangler's blog. My goal is to create an online community for screenwriters, from novice to jaded, where we can explore the art of writing for film, dispel a few myths, bemoan the whole process, and find a little solace, and maybe the occasional writing partner.

I am a working screenwriter. I've worked on three produced films, including Mission Movie and Strange Culture, which, I'm proud to say, just premiered at Sundance. I have a couple scripts under development, another that should be, and a few more that should be chopped up, burned, and buried in the basement. But a large portion of my work day involves working with other people's scripts, as a critic, script editor, and coach. The internet, and, of course, computers and screenwriting software, has opened up the craft of screenwriting, once the domain of a relatively small community in southern California, to just about anyone with enough time and determination to put words to paper.

This is a good thing, of course. But if you combine the internet and film industry culture, you're bound to get your share of scammers, blowhards, know-it-alls, egos and s**theads. Now we have Web 2.0 -- and with a little luck we can democratize the whole process and make it easier for the single mom in North Carolina, the contractor in Reno, and the recent college grad in New York City to learn a bit from each other.

I'll try to post tips and issues every few days here. One of the great things about working as a script coach is the constant, daily reminder about the basics of screenwriting. I'll post what I'm dealing with, and, with a bit of luck, start discussions in the comments section. I invite you to comment on anything you see, positive or negative. If there's a topic you'd like to see covered, please get in contact. Thanks!