Case Study in Character

Lisa Shapiro's Another Story, reprinted in Appendix B, is a cautionary tale about individual differences and how those in power treat those who are different. A grandmother tells a story to her two granddaughters. In an undefined place in the past, there are two young girls (the age of the two hearers of their grandmother's story). The period seems medieval. The small girls do not like wearing mittens over their black fingernails. One day they are arrested by the knights of the king because...

Case Study In Place Empire Of The Moon

Empire of the Moon, a short film by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson (1991), is about Paris. The point of view is that of the tourist the tourist coming to Paris, the tourist discovering the mysterious beauty of Paris, its inscrutable quality. In order to capture the mystery of that beauty, the filmmakers use a mixture of documentary images and abstracted images parts of buildings, the light of the moon moving across tree-lined residential areas, the artificial lights of the tourist boats...

Case Study In Structure River Of Things

River of Things, a short film by Katharine and Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, is based on four poems by Pablo Neruda. The filmmakers present four odes based on the poems an Ode to Things, an Ode to the Spoon, an Ode to a Bar of Soap, and an Ode to the Table. The film is formally structured by these four odes. Not all are similar in length or tone. Ode to Things, for example, the most naturalistic of the four, is the only one to focus on a relation-ship of a married couple. It is also linear in its...

Case Study in Tone

Geoffrey Mandel's Kill the Director is a mockumentary about film production, specifically student production. It uses interview techniques focusing on the director and his crew. The tale is one of continual failure. Crew members leave. The director feigns optimism, and artistic integrity above all is his goal, even in the nude scenes. Eventually, all the crew members and actors leave, and the director undresses and films himself as stand-in for the actor. A lamp falls on him and kills him. His...

Few Words On The Writing Exercises In This Book

They are intended (1) as aids to freeing perception and imagination, (2) as explorations to be embarked upon without thought of evaluating results in the ordinary way, and (3) as finger exercises, to be used as warm-up for future scriptwriting. In doing them, don't concern yourself with grammar, spelling, or punctuation. To do so may inhibit the flow of images, associations, and vague, floating ideas that are the raw material from which good stories are made. If the work is being done in a...

First Assignment

Write brief descriptions, using the present tense, of two quite different main characters as they go about their lives. Be sure to choose characters that engage you and situations you know something about. End each description with an encounter or incident that would make for a change in the character's situation. Set up one synopsis as if for a short script in which you employ the journey structure, and the other for a screenplay in which you use the ritual occasion. At this point, don't...

Working Definition

For the purposes of this book, which deals with writing the short screenplay of 30 minutes' length or less, we will define a story as any narration of events or incidents that relates how something happened to someone. The someone will be considered the main character of a story, and if the element of causality is added to the telling of how something happened to that character, the story will be considered to have a plot. In his book Aspects of the Novel, novelist E. M. Forster gives a...

About The Catalyst

Catalyst is a term borrowed from chemistry, where it refers to any substance that precipitates a chemical reaction. In dramatic narrative, the catalyst (or agent for change, or inciting incident) is the occasion or character that sets events in motion, precipitating the dramatic action of the protagonist. Let's say that the main character learns that a former gunslinger has just ridden into town, or unexpectedly glimpses a former lover at a train station, or suddenly loses a job any of these...

Achieving Believability

The drive of the character can be interpreted as manic energy, or it can be interpreted as the desire to fill a deep-seated need. In either case, the comprehension of the drive is the first step toward the audience believing the character and believing in the character. Also, by understanding motivation, the writer can begin to imagine the physical and behavioral characteristics of the main character. It is critical for the writer to use a character who has both physical and behavioral...

Adapting A Myth Or Fairy Tale A First Example

One of the interesting things that becomes apparent on reading a number of myths whatever tribe or culture they come from is how soon after relating the birth of the cosmos storytellers found it necessary to introduce conflict. And no wonder Generation after generation, people looked about them and tried to make sense of what they had observed, what they knew from their own experience that human beings have needs and that these needs bring them into conflict with one another, as well as with...

Another Adaptation With Daedalus As Hero

Now we shall work from the same source material as before (the myth) but in a very different way, using Daedalus as our main character. We'll answer the seven questions briefly, as a step toward writing a bare-bones synopsis of the projected script, which is for a live-action, realistic film of 15 to 18 minutes, set during the time of the American Civil War. The synopsis is a useful tool, one required by many teachers as a first step in writing any screen-play a kind of trial balloon. It is...

Another Story

THE BACKYARD OF A COUNTRY COTTAGE DAY THROUGH THE LIGHT WE SEE THE FRAME OF BRANCHES A SMALL COTTAGE WITH A LARGE PICTURE WINDOW. WE CAN SEE TWO LITTLE GIRLS PERCHED IN THE LOWER CORNER OF THE WINDOW. (whispering, after a long pause) I hate rain . . . 2. INT. LIVING ROOM OF COTTAGE DAY The rain is creating a HYPNOTIC RHYTHM on the roof. Two little girls are sitting on a cushion-padded bench with their elbows on the window sill. The taller girl is about seven years old with long blond hair...

Calling The Shots

The two most familiar types of camera shots in film are close-ups or long shots. Films are made up of disparate fragments of film, of which close-ups and long shots are but two types. Another would be the extreme long shot (or a camera motion shot dolly, tracking, trucking, stedicam, tilt, or pan). Having mentioned the visual variety of images in film, we must also state that determining shots is the prerogative of the film's director. What creative decisions, then, does this leave to the...

Case Studies in Character

In Elke Rosthal's My Name Is Rabbit, a young woman returns to visit the father she has not seen since she was a child. As a child, she had been a witness to her mother's death in a car accident her father had been driving. The current visit does not go well. Her father, an alcoholic, is inappropriately affectionate with her. He's sexually jealous of a friend she has made at work. In fact, the visit is a disaster, but it does prompt her to recall her early life. She remembers his temper and his...

Case Studies in Structure

Christian Taylor's The Lady in Waiting (see Appendix B) proceeds in an Act I-Act II structure, essentially resulting in an open-ended conclusion. In this film, the main character is asked to take a letter to New York. This event taking the letter to New York is not the same as the catalytic event, or turning point between acts. The turning point here is when the elevator stops as a result of the power outage. Act II is dominated by the exploration of the relationship between Miss Peach and...

Case Studies in Tone

The tone of the short melodrama is usually realistic. Christian Taylor's The Lady in Waiting and Graham Justice's A Children's Story are each presented realistically. This means recognizable characters in recognizable situations. The result is a dramatic arc for the main character that does not veer from the expected. Having confirmed the expected tone of the genre, it's important to reaffirm that tone in the short film has a wider latitude than does tone in the long-form melodrama. Two...

Case Study in Plot and Tone

Juan Carlos Martinez-Zaldivar's The Story of the Red Rose is based on a fairy tale by Oscar Wilde. Every effort is made to be faithful to the fairy tale. This is the story of how red roses came to be, and it depends on the interplay of humans with creatures who are partially human, partially nymphlike, called nighting birds. The time is the distant past. A scientific human pursues the Infanta (princess). She asks of him a red rose to match her dress at the ball where they will dance together...

Cast Study in Plot

Ethan Spigland's Strange Case of Balthazar Hyppolite tells the story of a film archivist who finds some rare film footage by the filmmaker Balthazar Hyppolite. The film predates the numerous technological discoveries that helped create the film industry. Consequently, it is footage of considerable historical importance. The balance of the film is devoted to searching and reconstructing the footage. In the second part of the film, the main character's love interest in a fellow archivist is...

Character

Decisions about character are key in the writing of your screenplay. Not only do we enter the story through the character, we also translate the events of the story through the main character's eyes and examine the relationship of the main character to the antagonist. The more powerful this relationship of oppositional characters, the greater the dramatic impact of your story. Finally, you should examine how the issue of character relates to the question of allegory. Does the character have the...

Characterization

The full range of physical and behavioral characteristics should be employed to develop your story. The physical looks of character can help. Height, weight, age, gender, together with cultural and professional characteristics, flesh out the look of a character. The more specific you can be about the character, the more likely those qualities can be helpful in your story. If your story concerns peer relationships, the emphasis on appearance becomes very important. Recall the young...

Characterization Strategies

Who is your story about Why have you chosen this person The answers to these key questions will go far toward helping you write your short script. The first impulse of writers of short films is not to spend much time on the characters. The thinking is that because you have less time, you therefore need less characterization. This is totally wrong. In fact, your short film relies principally on character. Unlike in the long film, there is little time to deal with the complexity of relationships,...

Conflict And Polarities

The central role of conflict in the development of your story cannot be overemphasized. Throughout your story, the struggle of character against character, character against setting, character against community, and character against society mines the dramatic possibilities. You should maximize those dramatic possibilities in order to tell your story. This may seem synthetic, mechanical, and forced, but it must be that way. Unlike real life, dramatic life relies on coincidence, intensification,...

Contents

PART I Fundamentals Breaking Ground 7 Chapter 1 STORYTELLING IN GENERAL 9 Chapter 2 TELLING A STORY IN IMAGES 17 Chapter 3 USING SOUND TO TELL THE STORY 29 Chapter 4 DISCOVERING AND EXPLORING A MAIN 37 CHARACTER Chapter 5 TELLING THE DRAMATIC STORY 47 Chapter 6 WRITING AN ORIGINAL SHORT SCREENPLAY 65 Chapter 7 ON REVISION SUBSTANCE AND STYLE 79 PART II Moving Forward Writing Strategies 87 Chapter 8 THE NEED FOR STORYTELLING 89 Chapter 9 VISUALIZATION STRATEGIES 101 Chapter 10 DRAMATIC...

Dialogue And Character

It is in the specific details of dialogue that the writer develops credibility in his characters. Everyone is a member of a family, a community, a country. Speech patterns and phrases are often associated with particular communities. It's not simply a matter of dialect it's also the slang and the level of formality or informality that differs from one community to the next. The writer who has done research will know that. The members of the audience who know people who speak that way will...

Dialogue And Plot

Dialogue marries character and plot, by demonstrating the emotional motivation of the characters, whether directly or indirectly. The writer articulates the characters' feelings through the particular goal in a scene. Once the writer determines that the scene's purpose is to suggest that the characters want to climb to the peak of a mountain, for example, or that they will wait endlessly for the Long Island commuter train, the central issue for the dialogue becomes clear how does the character...

Dialogue And Realism

Dialogue as sound is the most immediate device with which the writer creates a tone for the film. The writer can choose to use dialogue to convince viewers that what they are experiencing is real, or to undermine deliberately the film's sense of reality. In either case, dialogue is the most immediate vehicle to achieve these ends, but the writer has only a brief time to capitalize on that first impression. In order to deepen the impression of realism, the writer must flesh out and capitalize on...

Dialogue As Transition

Dialogue can be very useful in providing transitions between scenes. One of the problems the writer faces is the task of collapsing a story that may take place over a long time and in a number of geographical locations into a script less than 30 minutes long. Even the story of one day or one moment, as in the case of Enrico's Incident at Owl Creek, requires transitions to convince us of the dramatic use of time and place in the script. Changes of time and place occur in the original story, An...

Dialogue To Relieve Tension

Dialogue can be used equally effectively to relieve tension. The writer must keep in mind the arc of the tension as it builds throughout the scene. In order to reduce tension, the writer can employ humor at strategic points. Humor should not be as direct as a character suddenly stopping to tell a joke. Although this approach might work, it tends to take the viewer out of the scene. Relief of tension should keep us in the scene but simply drop the stress level of its characters. Humor is useful...

Dramatic Strategies

You have an idea for your story, and the problem before you is to find the drama in your idea and shape it into a film script. Something about the idea, which may have come from any one of the sources mentioned in Chapter 6, has captured your imagination and unlocked an emotional reaction. Whether it touches your unconscious or conscious synapses, the deed is done, and the idea seems to haunt you. It won't go away until you convert it into a script, and from a script into a film that you can...

Exercise Finding Characters

Go to a public place caf , park, train station, supermarket wherever you can watch someone who might engage you as a possible character without being noticed doing so. (Don't choose anyone you know.) Try to memorize quickly the person's appearance and general style then find a place where you can scribble down a list of items that seem characteristic or revealing about this person. Be as specific as you can where it seems important for instance, not glasses but big tortoise-shell glasses not...

Exercise Location Description

Go for a long walk or ride in a bus or car to find an unfamiliar location that interests you as a storyteller one that appeals to you as a film location for any reason. (Keep in mind that just about any location can be shot in an arresting manner.) Study the scene carefully and list the details that you find compelling, or even just interesting. Before moving on, check to be sure you haven't missed anything you might want to use if you have, add it. As soon as possible, find a place where you...

Exercise Using Sound Images

Find a fairly quiet place and close your eyes. If indoors, sit by an open window. Take a few deep breaths, relax, and try to become aware of the layers of sound that surround you, night or day, city or country. As you begin to focus on these, you will be able to sort out those that are close by from those farther off, and background sounds that tend to be almost unnoticeable at first (the steady hum of machines or traffic) from those that declare themselves clearly. When you feel ready, list...

Exercise Using Visual Images

X is your character, whoever he or she may turn out to be. Write down the following paragraph Dusk. Sound of soft rain. Fully dressed, X lies on the bed, gazing up at the ceiling. After a moment, X gets up slowly and crosses to the dresser against the opposite wall. Begin writing, stopping at the end of 10 minutes. Put the page aside without reading it. Take a couple of deep breaths and have a good stretch before going on to the next exercise. The writer director Ingmar Bergman has said in a...

Exercises And Further Explorations

For Exercise 14, think of a suitable location in which to place your main character, whom I'll call X but you call by name, and write a brief paragraph describing it. When you have done this, let X walk, run, or leap into the frame and see what happens. At any point after that, let another character possibly, but not necessarily, Y come onscreen, and see what happens then. Stop at 10 minutes, unless you find yourself writing a scene that you might be able to use in your screenplay, in which...

Exercises And Using Visual Images Again

Imagine an indoor hobby or activity of choice that your main character might pursue any time he or she has a chance. Close your eyes and visualize the setting. Then write down the following, substituting the name of your character for X Night. Gusts of wind outside. X sits (or stands) at a table (or bench or whatever) working on things, completely absorbed in what he or she is doing. A long moment, and Y opens the door without knocking to come into the room. You...

Exterior Narration

An external or distant voice is useful when the writer wants to distance us from, or present an alternate view to, the visual drama. Many approaches can distance the viewer, but most often the writer will borrow from journalism and use an on-the-air narrator or offscreen voice. The purpose is not only to distance the viewer but also to lend an air of objectivity and credibility to the proceedings. If the drama is presented as reportage rather than fiction, the audience will develop a different...

Fairy Tale Myth And Genre In Film

The early myths of any tribe usually tell about ways in which human beings are affected by the actions of a god or gods, while its fairy tales and legends are apt to describe ways in which human beings are affected by more earthy aspects of the supernatural say witches, giants, trolls, talking animals, or magical objects. In both, feelings and thoughts are externalized and given substance, which is undoubtedly why mythmaking of a sort has been an important part of narrative filmmaking from its...

Fifteenth Assignment Writing A First Draft

Consult our examples or the short screenplays in Appendix B for the appropriate format. Then, keeping your portfolio of exercises and assignments nearby and your outline at your elbow, begin writing. Remember that the first draft of any screenplay is an exploration the main thing is to get the story on paper so that you have something to revise. If you find it difficult to work at home, go to a caf if you find the word processor wearisome, go to pen or pencil if you find any or all of the...

Films Discussed In This Chapter

Annie Hall, directed by Woody Allen, 1977. Champion, directed by Jeffrey D. Brown, 1978. Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, 1974. Gare du Nord, directed by Jean Rouch, from Six in Paris, 1965. Going to Work in the Morning from Brooklyn, directed by Phillip Messina, 1967. Grease Monkey, directed by Laurie Craig, 1982. The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston, 1941. Modern Times, directed by Charles Chaplin, 1936. Sleeping Beauties, directed by Karyn Kusuma, 1991. Unforgiven, directed by...

Find the Structure That Is Suitable to the Story

Several of the previously mentioned docudramas use narrators. It is by no means mandatory that there be a narrator however, the device, borrowed from documentary, is commonly used in docudrama. Very often that narrator assumes the journalistic role of reporter, and so the structure proceeds as a piece of reportage (Culloden). Another approach to the narrator is to use a diarist. In Loach's Land and Freedom, the letters of the main character document the story. Whether reporter or diarist, the...

Finding A Characters Voice

Here is part of another scene from Chinatown. Two characters talk in the scene, each with a very different way of speaking. If you haven't seen the film or read any of the drafts of the script, you won't know the context but you should be able to hear two very individual voices and to follow what is going on in a general way. (Note that Evelyn is called YOUNG WOMAN until she identifies herself this is a subterfuge used to make sure that the reader, like Gittes himself, doesn't anticipate the...

Finding A Structure I Eight Preliminary Questions

What is the protagonist's situation at the beginning of the script 3. Who or what is the antagonist 4. What event or occasion serves as catalyst 5. What is the protagonist's dramatic action 6. What is the antagonist's dramatic action 7. How is the protagonist's action resolved 8. Do you have any images or ideas, however unformed, as to the climax The ending What follows are the answers we came up with for a short project we imagined as an animated film or video of three or four minutes' length,...

Finding A Structure Ii

In long narrative films, there is time to develop plot as well as subplots, but in most short narratives, there is time only for a fairly simple story line, however complete the characters or experimental the approach. In order to care about what happens to the main character, we need to be engaged as early as possible. We need to see that character in the midst of life, however briefly, before the catalyst occurs, introducing or stimulating the main dramatic action. Basically, developing this...

For Your Script

First, reread the suggestions for writing story outlines in the previous chapter. Then, using both the results of the last few exercises and your marked-up copy of the original letter, make a bare-bones outline for the screenplay, no more than a page long. Put this away for a day or two while you reflect on the feeling the tone you want the material to express. When you are ready, look over the outline to see if you've taken a step toward introducing the character in his or her situation...

Format

The format that you use can emphasize the importance of the visual in your script. As discussed earlier, we suggest the widely used master scene format, an example of which follows 1. It is raining, a thunderstorm. A young man, Brad, walks to his mailbox. He opens the box with much anticipation. He opens it. The rain is falling like a sheet. He can barely read, but he notices the words pleased to offer you. He stuffs the letter into his pocket and begins to run. Mom Dad I'm in I'm in He runs...

Framing The Story

The writer has a number of shapes or forms available to him or her to frame the story. Since this is the first important decision you make in directing the presentation of your idea, you should deliberate carefully about the frame. In the longer film, these shapes are referred to as genres the framing devices of the gangster film, melodrama, film noir or the horror film, and so forth. This device isn't as useful in the short film because many of these story forms are more attuned with a larger...

Genres Forming The Story

The term genre often conjures up images of gangsters, Western heroes, or monsters. In fact, the term is applicable to all stories. Genre is nothing more than the form, the envelope that encloses the characters and structure of the story. Of course, gangster films, Westerns, and horror films are particular genres. But so are war films, biographical films, science fiction films, and a wide variety of comedies. In this section of the book, we are going to look at four meta-genres, those that...

How to Use Character

Since plot is not a factor in the experimental narrative, the use of character becomes very important. On one level, the writer must keep a playful attitude toward character. The man in Autumn Moon is depressed, and yet the way the writer-director works with him produces an appealing side to him. It is important that the female character is different from him in the story the larger the contrast, the better. In Autumn Moon, that character is a girl, 15 years old, as unspoiled as the man is...

Interior Narration

Interior narration is a private monologue on the events of the story. Perhaps it's easiest to think of it as a confession by the narrator to the viewer. Writers resort to interior dialogue to foster intimacy, deepen emotion, or offer revelations in the narrative. Some writers believe that a counterpoint of visual and voice strengthens both. For example, objective visuals can be undermined by a subjective narrator, or the interior voice can whisper an interpretation that clashes with the visuals...

Introduction

This book is primarily intended for film and video students or independent video- and filmmakers who are faced with the necessity of writing a short narrative script. For our purposes, we consider a short film to be one of 30 minutes or less, as films longer than that usually need a secondary, or minor, plot-line to sustain audience interest and, in addition, are much less likely to be eligible for festivals or suitable to be shown as portfolio work. Although our main focus is on the short...

Issues of the

Because of the serious intent of the writer in hyperdrama, issues of the day have to be used in a particular way. An effective treatment is Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Heaven and angels seemed out of place in the immediate postwar period. But today, after 50 years, the Capra film is shown continually and celebrated. What the film suggests is that hyperdrama has to treat issues of the day in a more urgent manner than does melodrama. The treatment implies that meaning would be...

Main Character and Goal

In the short film, the goal must be more urgent than in a long one. The short film is all about compression. There is no time to explore relationships in as elaborate a manner as is appropriate in the long film. Making the goal of the main character more urgent means that there is less time for characterization. A choice must be made quickly in the short film. Consequently, characterizations of the secondary relationships are simple, even stereotypical. More time is thus available to experience...

Melodrama Is the Fundamental Layer of Many Genres

Lawrence or Jake La Motta, or an epic screen treatment of the religious secular struggle of Thomas More or of the political personal struggle of Yuri Zhivago each of these stories has a layer of melodrama. In fact, it is the layer of melodrama that humanizes and dramatizes the story. To be more specific, the plot of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia is the story of the Arab revolt against its Turkish rulers. Lawrence led the revolt, essentially a sideshow in the larger world...

Middle

The journey has begun the event is under way. In the middle of your story, you must concentrate on the mechanics of the struggle, the confusion, the desire, so that we understand how difficult the undertaking is for the main character. What is notable about the middle of the story is that the character's goal seems more difficult to achieve than it did at the beginning of the story. The journey is now more complicated the event is not what it seemed. There may now be doubt that the character...

More On Behavior Defining Character

In his treatise known as the Poetics, Aristotle defines dramatic action as the movement of spirit or psyche that produces a character's behavior. Film and theatre director Elia Kazan, in his notebook for A Streetcar Named Desire, remarks that finally directing consists of turning psychology into behavior. Substitute the word screenwriting for the word directing, and Kazan's statement would still hold true. A character's desires or needs, that movement of the psyche to which both Aristotle and...

More On Dialogue Strategies

Like every other dimension of the short film, dialogue has to be exercised with economy and purposefulness. There is no time for lengthy speeches or excessive exposition. Perhaps the most useful strategy with dialogue is to view it as another opportunity to further the emotional drive of your screen story. In this sense, dialogue should be as animated, intentional, and active as the visual dimension of your story. Consider dialogue as much a part of the action of the script as the visualized...

More On Sound Design As Complementary To Visual Design

As discussed in Chapter 3, sound is a critical storytelling tool. Whether the sound is synchronized (directly related to the visuals hearing the sound of a door opening when we see the door open) or is used asynchronously (in contrast to the visual), the overall pattern of the sound adds another dimension to the experience of the story. In this way, the sound can be used to support an aura of realism arising out of the visuals, or it can be used to create an alternate or multilayered view. The...

Motifscase Studies

For docudrama, as for melodrama, it is useful to look at case studies in order to understand the narrative shape of the form. The two case studies below will represent two of the subcategories of the docudrama the event, Peter Watkins's Culloden (1964) and the political portrait, Ken Loach's Land and Freedom (1996). The story proceeds without a main character. The combatants are the Scottish and the English. The leadership in each case is highlighted however, there is no single character...

Nineteenth Assignment Getting Feedback

As the saying goes, discretion is often the better part of valor. It is wise not to use family or friends as your first readers unless they are screenwriters or filmmakers themselves. Most people are unfamiliar with screenplays, and do not know how to respond to such bare-bones writing. In some cases, friends and family may be taken aback by what your writing self has come up with. And they are (understandably) often more interested in you than in your script. It makes sense to show them a...

Ninth Assignment Finding A Myth Or Fairy Tale To Adapt

Find yourself at least two good collections of myths or fairy tales, and pick a tale you'd like to work on. After you've located it, make at least two photocopies of several versions of the story one to keep as a clean copy, the other to mark up as you work on your outline. In addition, photocopy any other material that interests you, such as illustrations or observations by the book's editor. At this point it is better to have too much material rather than too little, as you can't tell which...

Notes

Forster, Aspects of the Novel (New York Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1927), 86. 2. Paul Zweig, The Adventurer (New York Basic Books, 1974), pp. 84, 85. 3. Aristotle, Poetics, ed., Francis Fergusson, trans., and introduction by S. H. Butcher (New York Hill and Wang, 1961). 4. Susanne K. Langer, Problems of Art (New York Scribner's, 1953), 15. 5. Italo Calvino and Patrick Creagh, trans., The Uses of Literature (New York Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1986), 18.

On Character As Habitual Behavior

In his work on psychology, Aristotle described character as habitual behavior.2 You are what you ordinarily do that is, until some occurrence leads you to do something you would not ordinarily do. In general terms, this is what makes for a dramatic situation. In the scene that follows, which is from the first pages of the second draft of Thelma and Louise, we are given in a few well-chosen lines a good deal of important information about each of the main characters.3 (In this excerpt, b.g....

On Restructuring Your Script

More questions Does the structure of your story work as well as it could Looked at retrospectively, from end to beginning, do the events make a satisfying dramatic arc from climax back to catalyst In life, for the most part, things happen as they will, not necessarily in any kind of orderly way, while in art and especially in the art of dramatic writing things should happen as the writer wills, for the writer is constructing a shape. And that shape will play a major role in determining what the...

On Revision Substance And Style

First drafts are for learning what your story or book is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge or enhance an idea, to re-form it. The first draft is the most uncertain where you need the guts, the ability to accept the unperfect until it is better.1 What is a draft For our purposes, a draft is a major rewrite of your script. In working on early drafts, try to avoid simply polishing, other than cutting long speeches or monologues. We will consider ways to hone your dialogue...

Or Her Goal

Plot in the melodrama is used in opposition to the main character and his or her goal. Since the role (that is, view) of the writer-director is the dominant presence in the docudrama, a parallel process goes on in the deployment of plot. Plot serves to illustrate, and make the case for, the views of the writer-director. In Culloden, Peter Watkins has particular views on the imperialism of England vis- -vis Scotland, and Scotland's 18th-century venture into nationalism. The plot, the Battle of...

Organizing To Tell Your Story

In organizing events around a core, it is critical to include a rise in action in your story. This may mean organizing events within the natural dimensions of the form. For the journey form, for example, in order for there to be a rise in action, the journey must have a beginning, middle, and a destination or completion. The rise in action may also be organized in terms of the character and his or her goal. In this case, the story begins with the articulation of the goal, and it ends when the...

Plot

The deployment of plot in a short film is in one way similar to the presentation in the long film a short melodrama can proceed without a plot and remain effective. If, however, you choose to deploy plot, its utilization leads to a resolution and generally implies a diminished role for characterization. In short, if you use plot, the likelihood is that it will play a dominant role in the script. There are short films, such as The Lady in Waiting (see Appendix B), where a very modest plot is...

Plot Points

It's a good idea to write down a list of plot events that might help your story. At this stage, you should be as generous as possible in terms of plot. You will not necessarily keep all these events in your story, but the list will help you look for a logic in the plot to surround the dramatic heart of your story. The list will also help you begin to think about proportion between events. Is one event more important to the plot than another Preference should be given to those events that...

Positioning The Character

In most forms of storytelling, there is a variety of options available to the storyteller as to the position of the main character in the story. A third-person position makes the character an observer a second-person position places the character in the role of guide throughout the story finally, the first-person position places the character in the middle of the narrative the story is happening to the character. In prose, poetry, the short story, long pieces of fiction, and plays, all of these...

Realism Versus Fantasy

A general decision made by every storyteller, one that will affect how powerfully the audience engages the story, is the choice of realism or fantasy as the storytelling mode. Good stories can be realistic or fantastic, but the choice will affect how the storyteller utilizes character and plot, among other things. If a story is realistic, the detailing of the plot and of character has to be convincing and recognizable. If, on the other hand, the choice is fantasy, the characterizations will be...

Reflections And Comments

If you look over the outline, you will see that each step represents a scene that forwards the action, whether the scene is more or less continuous in time or is a single unit taking place at different times. For instance, the first step essentially sets up the main character's situation and shows tension between Icarus and his father, even hinting at the struggle that will develop between them. Step 2 is a variation on this and could easily be considered a part of 1. Step 3 shows us Icarus as...

Resolution or No Resolution

Generally, melodramas resolve when the main character either achieves his or her goal or fails to do so. For the majority of melodramas, the issue of resolution has been the end point of the story. However, a number of storytellers have begun to opt for no resolution or to put it another way, for an open-ended ending. Films such as Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It and Atom Egoyan's Exotica have opted for a two-act structure, essentially relinquishing the resolution that comes in the third act of...

Ritualized Tone

Just as hyperdrama uses ritualization of the action to create metaphor, experimental narrative uses the organization of the details, aural and visual, to develop a tone that creates metaphor. The tone may be poetic, as in Satyricon it may be beautifully mysterious and menacing, as in The Passenger it may be hallucinatory, as in The Double Life of Veronique it may be epic and inhumane, as in The Round-up. Whichever tone the filmmaker chooses, that tone will tend to have a formal quality that...

Second Assignment Rewriting In Format

Throughout the book, the assignments, as opposed to the exercises, will benefit from reading and discussion in class or, again, if you are working on your own, with friends who have some idea of the writing process. You should now have more than enough material for this assignment, which will require somewhat more time and thought than the previous exercises. It consists of two parts. The first is to rewrite your scene from Exercise 1, using whatever information you find useful or provocative...

Seventeenth Assignment Writing A Second Draft

At this point, you will have answered the questions above as best you can, possibly revised your structure, and should be ready to move on. If you have been following some of the suggestions and assignments above, you are already into your rewrite. Keep in mind that even seasoned professionals have not found a way to circumvent the writing of a script's second, third, or even fourth draft Robert Towne's brilliant screenplay for Chinatown went through at least six. Writing any screenplay,...

Sixteenth Assignment Toward A Second Draft

First of all, you will want to make several copies of your script. While it is possible to do the following work directly on the computer, using hard copy at this point could help distance you from your raw material. Find a time and place where you can read the script aloud to yourself, alone and without interruption. This should be done at a conversational pace and volume mumbling would defeat the purpose of the exercise. It is important, when reading, that you keep from judging or evaluating,...

Some Basic Definitions

What follow are some of the important and widely used terms that we will be using throughout this book Protagonist, meaning main character, is a word that comes from the Greek words for first (protos) and struggler or combatant (agonistes). So the protagonist is the main struggler in the story. The word antagonist comes from the Greek words for against (anti) and, once more, struggler or combatant (agonistes). The antagonist, whether human, man-made, or a force of nature such as a mountain,...

Stepping Back To Move Forward

Assignments and exercises in the first part of this book have been set up to encourage the kind of messages from the unconscious that produce specific and authentic story material, rather than the lifeless copies of copies that make for hackwork. To write an original short screenplay, you will be utilizing all the skills you've learned so far, so it makes good sense at this point to take a quiet half-hour to look over your completed assignments in the order in which they were written. Note the...

Storytelling In General

Anyone who has ever been confronted by a small child's searching gaze or seen an infant gulp down its surroundings with its eyes (Where am I Who are you What's going on here ) will recognize that from early in their lives, human beings have an intense need to understand the world around them, to make sense of things. Inventing and embellishing stories are ways to satisfy that need the first stories human beings told themselves and one another were about how everything in the world came into...

Storytelling In The Context Of Film

As we have established, film stories come from many sources. Anthony Green's Pigeon (included in Appendix A) is based on true World War II events. Looking at a number of films, we find stories such as George Miller's Lorenzo's Oil, based on newspaper accounts of real-life events (a parent's search for a scientific cure for her child's illness in spite of the medical establishment's pronouncement that her son is incurable). Other films are based on national figures such as James Hoffa (David...

Structuring A First Adaptation

What follows is an example of the process by which a myth can provide source material for very different narratives, any one of which an audience might enjoy without being familiar with the original story which is not to say that a viewer's experience of the film wouldn't gain in depth and resonance if he or she were familiar with it. The myth we have chosen to adapt is the Fall of Icarus. Briefly, the story material we are working from is this Daedalus (which means cunning artificer) was both...

Style in the Short Film

All elements character, plot, and tone put the unfolding of a narrative in the service of the moral. Metaphor, exaggeration, unnatural events and characters can all be brought to bear on the moral purpose of the story. Even a filmmaker as grounded in realism as Bergman found in The Seventh Seal (1956), for example, that he had to move away from realism. The moral tale no man can escape mortality is his subject, and so death and a plot specifically about the...

Telling A Story In Images

The cinema is still a form of graphic art. Through its mediation, I write in pictures. . . . I show what others tell. In Orph e, for example, I do not narrate the passing through mirrors I show it, and in some manner, I prove it. Perhaps no aspect of film and video is more powerful in terms of narrative than the appearance of reality. Images on the screen have a validity, a weight of their own, in a way that words do not. What follows is an excerpt from the scene in Orpheus to which Cocteau...

Telling The Dramatic Story

You judge films in the first place by their visual impact instead of looking for content. This is a great disservice to the cinema. It is like judging a novel only by the quality of its prose. Orson Welles undoubtedly would have agreed that the images of a narrative film, whether visual or aural, should, like the language of a novel or short story, serve to illuminate the tale. Rust Hills, in his excellent book on writing the short story, elaborates on a similar point A successful short story...

Tenth Assignment Getting Started

Consider the character in the story who appeals to you, the one with whom you can most readily identify. In writing narrative of any kind except farce or parody, where one doesn't necessarily have to identify with the main character or characters identification is really more important than whether you approve of the character. One often identifies with characters or finds them appealing even if one doesn't approve of them (Richard III, for example). When you have decided, take that character...

The Antagonist

Superficially, the antagonist would seem to be the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco, but this is not a story about the Civil War and its outcome. Rather it is a story, focused on the Spanish conflict, about idealism versus pragmatism as it plays out in the world political arena. Thus, the forces of pragmatism (the main character would say cynicism) are the real antagonists. This means that Stalin, Stalinism, Communism, or Fascism would all be far more important antagonists than...

The Authorial Voice

The authorial voice is quite muted in melodrama and overarching in docudrama, but in hyperdrama it is powerful and passionate. After all, the goal of hyperdrama is the moral lesson, with the main character the vehicle for that lesson. In fact, the goal of the writer in hyperdrama is to convey that voice despite the viewer's involvement with the story. That is not to say we do not care for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Rather we are much more aware of the writer's views on childhood, play, and...

The Centrality of Actuality

At the heart of the docudrama is the sense of actuality. Whether the focus is on real people, a real place, or a historical event, the docudrama trades on this sense it happened to real people, in a real place and time. The deployment of style, as well as of the dramatic components, will likely focus on that veracity. Time will also be allotted to supporting the sense of actuality details, habits, and customs will all be specific to the topic. This does not, however, necessarily mean that the...

The Centrality of the Moral Lesson

At its heart, hyperdrama is a story told in service of a moral lesson. Character, plot, tone, all serve that overriding purpose. The moral lesson might be focused on personal behavior, for example. The main character in Bunuel's The Criminal Mind of Archibald Cruz is convinced that he committed a crime (murder) as a child. We know that he did not. However, he conducts his life and relationships in an aura of guilt and in the expectation that if he becomes too close to anyone, in a love...

The Comedy

The mockumentary is one particular comedic story frame the writer has other options to choose from, as well. Comedy runs the gamut from farce, which is principally visual, to more sophisticated forms, where character and dialogue are more important. If the idea is character oriented, what are the characteristics that lend themselves to comic opportunity If they are physical, the comedy is aimed at the character to put it another way, we laugh at the character. If the characteristics are more...

The Comic Character

The comic character and the tragic character are essentially mirror versions of one another. The comic character is, however, more flexible, in that the writer can employ irony through the character. The comic character will also allow you a range of feeling much broader than the tragic character will allow. For example, you can present the comic character as a clown who reflects on his or her behavior, or as a fool who can reflect on the behavior of those around him or her as well. Although...

The Digital Video Movement

The technology advance of digital video offers a new opportunity for makers of the short film. Essentially, the technology will not contribute directly to the writing of a short film, but it will enable the writer-filmmaker to view the writing process as more malleable. To be specific, the fact that the writer can use digital video an inexpensive recording format to work with actors and to try out scenes, implies that such work, whether improvisational or scripted, can enhance the actual...

The Docudrama

If your idea is generated out of the daily news, is about a famous person, or should be related as closely as possible to real life, the docudrama could be an important framing device for you. The docudrama requires a level of veracity that suggests detailed research of your idea. You need recognizable people and events to reinforce your story and place it in a category of believability far beyond that of the conventional drama. In a docudrama, the writer often refers to the media at least...

The Dominance of Place and Time Over Character

In the melodrama, the character and his or her goal seem to transcend time and place. The reason is that at its heart, melodrama is about psychology, behavior, and interior issues in a sense, the dramatic arc of the main character is an inner journey. Consequently, the externalities of time and place are subsidiary to the internal dynamics of character. Mike Van Diem's Character, discussed in the previous chapter, is an excellent benchmark. The main character's family life, his ambition, and...

The Dramatic

The arc of the story is the journey of the main character to disillusionment in the very cause in which he enlisted. The story begins with an aura of camaraderie in a particular militia unit. The unit is democratic, its members principled and brave. They succeed in combat. Slowly, however, the unit is fractured by orders from Moscow a requirement to obey a central command (implied to be controlled by Moscow). Dissension among the group leads some to join the organized army, others to remain in...

The Dramatic Arc

The story progresses back and forth through time rather than along an arc. The Armenian sequence has two distinct parts traveling, and photographing. Each is presented differently in terms of visual style, but the proximity of the travel footage contrasts sharply with the more distant images of the photography footage. The photographer's point of view unites the two, and the wife is prominent in both. These Armenian travel sequences contrast with the stillness and the focus on the photographer...

The Dramatic Core Of The Story

You are gripped by your idea, you have found a frame for the story, and you've developed conflict, polarities, and character in the film script. What is the dramatic heart of your story Until you can answer this question, you won't be able to determine the proportions of scenes to one another. Where should the emphasis be placed The answer to this question will determine the shape of your story. In Incident at Owl Creek, the core of the story is that the condemned man, although he dreams of...

The Evolution Of The Short Film

At the outset of film being created as an art, all films were short. Indeed, until 1913, all films were 15 minutes long or less. Only after the Italian film epics had influenced D. W. Griffith to produce Judith of Bethulia did the longer form come to be the norm. Although feature film eventually became the predominant form, comedy shorts, from Mack Sennett to the Bowery Boys, were produced until the success of television in the 1950s. Serialized films were also essentially shorts, characterized...

The Experimental Narrative

Experimental narrative should not be confused with the more specifically non-narrative experimental film or video. The experimental film or video is often entirely taken up with an issue of style. In the extreme (in more than one Norman McLaren film, for example), the film can concern itself with the variations of movements of abstract lines or shapes. In McLaren's films, line or shape give a visual dimension to an abstract musical piece. The narrative intention is at best remote more often in...

The Fable

Fable, a term most used in the sense of a short story devised to convey some useful moral lesson, but often carrying with it associations of the marvelous or the mythical, and frequently employing animals as characters. Famous examples include Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and George Orwell's Animal Farm.1 If your idea is best presented with the elements of moral lessons, the mythical, and animal characters, the fable can transport your idea from the realistic to the fantastic. Although...