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 Time

Phil Bertelson's Around the Time is an interview of a black father by his son. What Bertelson is exploring is actually the circumstances of his own birth. This encounter of young adult and middle-aged man is a meeting of two strangers. The conversation triggers the narration by the father of a time a generation earlier, of his relationship with a white woman, and of the racism of the times and the consequent impermanence of interracial relationships. The relationship fails, but the narrator...

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...

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 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 Character

Matt Mailer's The Money Shot chronicles a particular film project. The filmmaker is the central character. He is following two street kids, both teenagers in trouble. The film opens with the male subject confessing to killing people. He is charming but brutal and very candid about what he does. The female subject also lives a marginalized life alienated from her mother, she supports herself by prostitution, and she is a drug user. The filmmaker also interviews the young woman's mother and the...

Case Study in the Role of the Antagonist

Dead Letters Don't Die, by Anais Granofsky and Michael Swanhaus, is a modern fable about hope and hopelessness. The main character, a postal worker, is always hopeful. His boss, the woman he loves from her letters, and the Santa Claus character all represent urban cynicism. They fulfill the role of antagonist, not in the sense that the main character hates them, but rather in terms of the social and psychological attitude they represent. They have given up hope. The plot, the effort to save the...

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...

Character Is the Vehicle

In melodrama, the main character provides the direct means to identify with the outcome of the narrative. In hyperdrama, identification with the main character is less important. The main character is only the means or vehicle for the narrative. Consequently, we experience the character more as an observer rather than the stronger role of participant. We view the main character's alienation and depression in Frankenheimer's Seconds, but do we feel deeply about his fate In a melodrama we would...

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...

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,...

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 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 Intensify Tension

Just as dialogue is the expression of the emotions of the character in terms of arcing toward a goal, it is also the barometer of that arc as the character moves through a scene. Perhaps the best way to understand this notion is to consider that every scene has an arc from the point where we understand the character's goal to the point where the character either succeeds or fails in achieving that goal. In either case, the scene should be shaped by a growing anticipation of achieving the goal,...

Eighteenth Assignment Cutting The Inessential

Raymond Chandler, in writing on screenwriting, said that the challenge . is to say much in a little and then take half of that little out and still preserve an effect of leisure and natural movement. Such a technique requires experiment and elimination. To do that, we suggest that you go through your script carefully and ruthlessly cut minor details, fancy writing, and anything that readers can figure out for themselves anything that doesn't seem essential. Be concise. Give us only the...

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...

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...

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,...

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...

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...

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...

Notes

Callie Khouri, symposium on Thelma and Louise, Writers Guild of America West, November 1991, unpublished. 2. Aristotle, Poetics, ed. Francis Fergusson, trans. and introduction by S. H. Butcher (New York Hill and Wang, 1961). 3. Callie Khouri, Thelma and Louise, unpublished screenplay. 4. Robert Towne, Chinatown, unpublished screenplay. 5. Christian Taylor, Lady in Waiting, unpublished screenplay. 6. Lisa Wood Shapiro, Another Story, unpublished screenplay. 7. Karyn Kusuma, Sleeping Beauties,...

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....

Plot Is Critical

Consider the plot in hyperdrama as a lengthy journey wherein the main character will encounter many obstacles. The characters may succeed, or they may fail, but in one way or another, they will be transformed by the journey. In the Star Wars trilogy, the galaxy is the path that will take a son into a confrontation with his father. In Excalibur, the journey for Arthur is from a warring, barbaric origin (his birth) to an attempt to establish a just society (Camelot), where nobility and honor will...

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...

Realistic People in Realistic Situations

Melodramas, unlike fables, are stories that may have happened, or that at least in the mind of the audience, could have happened. That means that the supernatural and the fabulous are the subjects, or surroundings, of other genres. In the melodrama, the story is about you or me, or our grandparents, or about someone we believe exists or did exist. This recognizability affects every element of the melodrama its characters, its shape, its tone. Although not all forms of drama are accurate...

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...

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,...

Sixth Assignment More On Describing A Character

Read in their entirety the first three student scripts in Appendix B Another Story, Lady In Waiting, and Sleeping Beauties.7 Pay special attention to the way in which characters are described the first time you meet them. After you have read each script, go back to evaluate these descriptions. How well do they function, in light of what you now know of the character's behavior Is there particular information you weren't given about a character that would have been helpful If there is change or...

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,...

Sources For Storytelling

Whether your goal is a contemporary story, a story specific to a culture, or a more universal story, there are many sources of inspiration, information, or insight for you to draw from. Many writers and teachers of writing believe that the best source is your own experience. Our feeling is that your experience is only one of many sources. Should you choose your own experience for a story, the detailing of the story is clearly less problematic. The problem writers face with their own experience...

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...

Story Outline For Icaruss Flight

Icarus and Daedalus imprisoned in a room at the top of a tall tower. Icarus stands at one of the parapets, gazing out at sea and sky Daedalus sits at a crude table, working on a plan of escape. He looks up, sees Icarus dreaming, and orders him to sweep the room. Icarus takes his time about obeying. 2. Night. Daedalus asleep on a cot, Icarus gazing out, as before. Daedalus stirs, sees the boy at the parapet, and orders him back to bed. When he closes his eyes, Icarus makes a face at him. 3....

Story Qualities

All stories must engage the curiosity of an audience, whether that audience be one or a thousand. The storyteller must build on that curiosity, inviting our involvement in a character's situation, and finally allow the viewer to identify with the character and the situation. To hold the audience and move it through the story, a variety of devices are used. Some are operating principles others are artificial techniques. But no matter what device is used, the goal is the same to move the audience...

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...

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...

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 Current Situation

In North America, the short film continues to be an apprenticeship form. This means that it is predominantly viewed as a portfolio piece. Although festivals, cable television sales, and increasingly commercially sponsored competitions offer the young short filmmaker the opportunity to recoup some of his or her costs. Purely from an economic viewpoint, the short film is best viewed as an investment in the 'filmmaker's professional development. The lack of commercial potential remains the...

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 Dominance of Relationships as a Story Element

There are genres that are dominated by plot the action-adventure film, the Western, the war film. Other genres, such as melodramas, are dominated by character. What this means is that melodramas key in on relationships on a level that is both understandable and appealing to us. In George Stevens's A Place in the Sun (1952), the main character deeply explores two love relationships, one with a working-class coworker, the other with a privileged debutante. These relationships dominate the story....

The Dramatic Arc

The journey that Arthur Hamilton, 55-year-old banker, will take is to be transformed into a 35-year-old artist, Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), living in Malibu. Much effort is put into acclimatizing Arthur Tony to his new life. Many company employees and other reborns participate. When Arthur Tony finally feels comfortable in his new life (he has the love of a woman, a relationship), a drunken indiscretion about who he really is breaks the facade. His lover in fact is an employee of the company....

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 Lady In Waiting

EARLY MORNING All is quiet as the first rays of sunlight hit FORTLEY MANOR. At the front gate is a large sign which reads Bartle and Johnson of London announce the sale of Fortley Manor, an extensive country estate. Across the bottom is plastered SOLD. Large rooms lie empty of furniture, everything is spartan and clean, and nothing moves save the morning light that gradually increases throughout the building. A distant RUSTLING is heard. A pair of woman's hands sifts through...

The Main Character and His Goal

Oscar is a young boy born at the end of World War I in the contested Baltic area of Danzig. Part German and part Polish, the zone is neither and both. These national tensions are represented in Oscar's paternity. His mother loves two men, one Polish and the other German. One of the two is his real father, but Oscar doesn't know which. Growing up in this confused familial and national environment, Oscar decides at age three to stop growing. He only gives up this goal after the end of World War...

The Main Characters and Their Goals

There are two main characters in Autumn Moon. The story takes place in Hong Kong, but in this film the city is pictured as a city of skyscrapers and sea. Each is fascinating and offers the two characters a formal space to occupy. The female character is a fifteen-year-old girl who lives with her grandmother. Her parents and brother have already emigrated to Canada. Whether she is finishing her schooling or waiting for the passing of her grandmother, she is very much in between being in Hong...

The Nature of the Struggle of the Main Character

The struggle for the main character in melodrama dominates the narrative. In the docudrama, the nature of the character's struggle is subordinate to the goal of the story. In addition, here the voice of the author subsumes the elements of story, often for political (as opposed to dramatic) purposes. Also, the heritage of the documentary film overrides dramatic considerations. In Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the challenge of conformity is more critical than the character's...

The Parallels In Documentary

The documentary shares with the short film its noncommercial history. Consequently, each uses a broader band of actual and potential material. In part it also characterizes each as a less expensive and thus more available form of expression. The two forms also share an important goal the deep desire to say something, to affect their audience. That conviction to affect the audience is enabled by the relationship each form has to voice. As mentioned earlier, the link of the short film to metaphor...

The Principle Of Visualization

Whether the writer imagines the film, conjures up a dream, or simply draws an image, the operating principle is that the writer should visualize rather than verbalize. The key to the success of that visualization is the meaning it gives to the story. Images can be neutral, moving, or overwhelming. The creativity of the writer and later of the director makes the difference between functional and fantastic. We propose to take you through a process of visualization that will help you aspire to the...

The Relationship Of Long To Short Film

The usual long-form, or feature-length film, has a definite set of qualities beyond its physical length. There are particular expectations of character, complexity of plot, presence of a subplot or secondary story line, and a particular structure (generally called a three-act structure). There are numerous secondary characters, and often particular genre forms are used, such as the gangster film or film noir. Are the characteristics of the short film variations of those of the long film In most...

The Reliance on Pattern

What is required when plot and character are downplayed is a style that invites involvement from the audience, that creates a pattern substituting for the functions of plot and character. In Exotica, we follow each of the five characters through a gradual revelation of their sexual confusion and the sources of their despair. In Sink or Swim, the pattern is literary chapters unfolding chronologically. In Natural Born Killers, the pattern is the frequent references to television. Pattern is the...

The Shape Of This Book

We have structured this book into four sections, the first dealing with the underlying fundamental characteristics of the short screenplay the second moving the writer from the fundamentals to strategies for storytelling, visualization, dramatization, character, and dialogue the third dealing with forming the story and the last pointing out future directions. Since the process of writing the short film should be an organic one, we begin with the idea and move the writer through the various...

The Short Short Filmthe Commercial

The obvious characteristic about the commercial is how little time there is to tell a story. Nevertheless, there is character and plot in many 30-, 60-, or 90-second commercials. Several characteristics of these have had considerable influence on the short film. Foremost of these characteristics is that the commercial needs to find a visual solution to character and to plot. In addition, the style must be strong but simple, and it has to observe the economy of the narrative. Another influence...

The Structure of the Plot Is Rife with Ritual

Plot in hyperdrama tends to differ from the deployment of plot in the war film, which is typically realistic. Indeed, the plot in hyperdrama has a very different rhythm from plot in other genres it is ritualistic and formal rather than realistic or familiar. Some examples will illustrate the point. Battles between good and evil, whether in Star Wars or Excalibur, tend to be for-mal in Excalibur, they are orchestrated to the music of Wagner. Those battles, in their details, veer from realism...

The Use of Plot to Create a Superhero

Moral tales and fables function on a mythic level. In this respect, writers and teachers of scriptwriting who ascribe to Joseph Campbell's ideas about storytelling are right.1 A main character goes on a mythic journey. He or she faces many challenges and setbacks. The journey, once completed, makes him or her a hero. In hyperdrama, this heroic position is in the end a byproduct of the scale of the plot. Whether that plot is a war, a difficult journey, or other challenge, the ritualization of...

The Wounding

A girl's hand comes in and out of frame. They have to set up the table for dinner. His parents are going to come home after they come back from the movies. Well, what are we having for dinner tonight Chicken, ham. No, put the chicken over here. Dad likes the chicken. Dessert of course. And a beer. Oh tomorrow's his birthday. He's going to have a birthday present. Oh look, the kitty cat the kitty's obviously going to try and eat it. Chicken yeah. It doesn't look like he's eating it though. Well,...

Thirteenth Assignment Getting Started Again

In this assignment, you will be following procedures outlined earlier for adapting material gathered about a folktale or myth into the dramatic structure of a script outline first, making several photocopies of your letter, then marking off in different colors on one of these (1) the events, images, and remarks on characters or settings that seem essential, including descriptions of the main character's thoughts or feelings, where important (2) any other material that you are likely to use and,...

Three Visual Openings

What follows are detailed accounts of the openings of three short films regarded as classics. Each uses little or no dialogue and no voice-over, although their sound tracks play important roles in establishing mood and tone. Note that these are not excerpts from the screenplays but simply descriptions of scenes from the finished films. In Incident at Owl Creek (Robert Enrico, 1962), the following sign is prominently placed on a burnt tree trunk CAUGHT INTERFERING WITH THE RAILROAD BRIDGES...

Tone Is Formal and Fantastic

The tone of hyperdrama has to embrace both the ritualistic and the fantastic the opposite of realism. Even the poetic tone of the Western is insufficient to capture the tone in hyperdrama. Hyperdrama is a form that simulates the children's fairy tale, and as such it has to be filled with an excess (without the pejorative connotations of the word) that embraces the fantastic. Operatic is a description that comes to mind florid is another. The key is essentially an over-the-top tone that allows a...

Tone

Fantastic is the first observation one makes about the tone of this film. Events are extreme. A woman hides a man from the police beneath her expansive four skirts. While she is being questioned by the police in the middle of a potato field, he impregnates her. Later a birth canal is observed by the child who is to be born. Three years later, the main character decides to grow no longer. All these events are fantastic, beyond belief, and yet together they set the moral parameters of this story....

Twelfth Assignment Revising Your Dialogue

Read your answers to the seven questions from Exercise 2 about your dialogue sequence and then the scene itself. Try to figure out what is going on between the characters and what each of their inner (or dramatic) actions is, or seems to be. If this is unclear, come to a determination of what actions would make the scene work as you would like it to. (The initial four lines given were intended to suggest conflict.) If you want to extend the scene, do so now. Think about any other changes you...

Use Structure to Meet the Needs of the Story

Structure is the servant of story, although much that has been written about screenwriting these past two decades might lead you to believe otherwise. The key to story is character its nature, its dilemma, and above all its goal. If you know these, the structural options become clearer. In melodrama, the key structural layer is the character layer, the background story. If you use this layer and triangulate the key relationships quite early in the story, you will have used structure well. Act I...

Using Sound To Tell The Story

Besides conveying what (as we have noted) philosopher Susanne Langer calls the feeling-tone of a film or tape, aural images can expand the frame in terms of offscreen space and extend the meaning of what is being shown, by using sound as metaphor.1 When these images are an integral part of the story, they usually originate in the script. The great French director Robert Bresson, whose films are known for the quality of their visual images, is a master at extending the frame through sound. In...

What Stories Can Do

From early on in our history, stories have offered us alternative ways of experiencing the world. Huddled in the dark about a fire or in the heat of a marketplace, seated at a great lord's table or in the darkness of a movie theater, we drink up stories about the marvelous or terrifying or comical experiences of other human beings. We participate in the adventures of heroes and heroines, whether they are called Achilles or Michael Corleone, Little Red Riding Hood or Dorothy of Kansas. The most...

What The Images Tell Us About The Main Characters Situations

In Incident at Owl Creek, we read the sign and hear the roll of drums, the hoot of an owl, and a bugle call before we glimpse the main character. Each of these sounds acts as a powerful stimulus to the forming of mental images. Together, they provide us with important information and set a tone of foreboding that will quickly be justified. We hear the owl and realize that although there is faint light and it is growing brighter, it is still (technically) night and executions traditionally take...

When Appearances Are Deceptive

In one of his aphorisms, Oscar Wilde, the Irish playwright and dandy, turned a general belief upside down by suggesting, It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. We laugh at this deft reversal of what is commonly held to be true, and we may even agree that it makes a kind of topsy-turvy sense. However, if you reflect upon it, the witticism also makes straightforward sense in life, people unconsciously give themselves away all the time. What is revealed to the acute observer...

Who Is the Protagonist

Before considering this question, it is important to note once more that most short films or tapes work best with a single protagonist there simply is not enough time for an audience to identify with more than one. The exception is with certain kinds of comedy slapstick, parody, or satire, for example where a writer may not want the audience to identify with the main character but to maintain a psychological distance from all the characters. (Think of how one views W. C. Fields, the Marx...

Writing A Story Outline

In an interview discussing the architecture of the screenplay, screenwriter William Goldman, author of the film scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and All the President's Men, says, I've done a lot of thinking myself about what a screenplay is, and I've come up with nothing except that it's carpentry. It's basically putting down some kind of structure form that they the actors and director can then mess around with. And as long as they keep the structure form,...

Short Short Screenplays

New to this edition we have included three short screenplays that are 8 minutes long or less. A great deal of feedback prompted us to pose the question, How long is a short film Our point in including these three screenplays is to suggest a wider view of the short screenplay. In fact, screenplays in this category can run as short as 90, 60, or even 30 seconds. However, since we wanted to focus on the apprentice-early filmmaker categories, we excluded the commercial. Of the three screenplays,...

The Opportunity For Renewal

Who would have thought that Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, who began their careers as student filmmakers, would return to the short film mid-career BMW hired each filmmaker to make a short film about his car that would be shown on its website. The films have been so successful that at least one has been released in select cinemas and the series is available for purchase on DVD. Scorsese had returned earlier to the short form to make the Michael Jackson music video Bad for the album 'Thriller....

The Catalytic Event

Oscar's birth is the catalytic event of the narrative. In the birth canal, he appears already fully formed, with knowing eyes, the same size he will be when he makes his fateful decision to stop growing. He is thus presented at birth with a sense of seeing and knowing that one does not associate with a newborn child. This presentation makes credible the act of will that marks the end of his growth. It also positions Oscar as the perennial observer rather than participant in the events that...

Case Study In Tone Eclipse

Jason Ruscio's Eclipse 1995 is a short film that provides a powerful experience in tone. Set in an unspecified time and place, the only live character is a young boy, age 12 or 13. Through the course of the narrative, there are a series of flashbacks that tell us he is the sole survivor of a massacre. His mother was killed by soldiers. Now, as he surveys the farm where he lived, he sits by the pit where his mother died and finds a dead soldier. Holding the soldier's gun, he fantasizes about...

Another Example Of Screenplay Shorthand

Screenwriter Robert Towne has a distinctive, ironic, and rather leisurely descriptive style. Nonetheless, he condenses a great deal of information into a few lines on this first page of a late draft of Chinatown. The script opens with close-ups of a series of snapshots of a man and woman making love. These visuals are accompanied by the sound of anguished moans and a male voice crying out, Oh, no At this point, we cut to the following scene CURLY drops the photos on Gittes' desk. Curly towers...

Using Sound As Metaphor

The sound of a ticking clock in a scene may be simply part of ambient sound, or, as in High Noon, serve as a metaphor for the passage of time, bringing the hero inexorably closer to a showdown he does not want. Sometimes the long wail of a locomotive reminds us that our character lives near railroad tracks sometimes it serves as a metaphor for a character's yearnings to escape the confines of his or her life. Sound used as metaphor can create a whole dimension of meaning not immediately...

Exercise Dialogue As Action

Write down the following dialogue, in format or not, as you choose. As soon as you have the lines on paper, begin writing further lines, or even physical actions of the characters, as fast as you can, without worrying about exposition or concerning yourself as to whether or not any of it makes sense. Write for 10 minutes and stop. Immediately afterward, ask your characters the questions from Exercise 2 see page 29 and write down the answers. The answers will establish the context for your...

Examples Of The Journey Structure

Two award-winning student shorts from New York University that use this structure to very different ends are Going to Work in the Morning from Brooklyn, written and directed by Phillip Messina, and Champion, written and directed by Jeffrey D. Brown. Going to Work in the Morning from Brooklyn tells the story of a man who absolutely does not want to go to work, although he knows he must. We follow him in his anguished, comical struggle to get out of bed, into a suit and tie, out the door, and...

Examples From Student Scripts

Here is a description of the protagonist of Christian Taylor's Lady in Waiting, a ritual occasion script, the first time we see her INT. A sticker is placed on the box which reads AUCTION. There is a sigh from the owner of the hands, MISS PEACH. Miss Peach is a grey-haired, formal-looking woman in her late fifties. She sits awkwardly on a suitcase in the middle of the dining room, which is bare of furniture Miss Peach is conservatively dressed in a drab woolen coat and unassuming hat.5 Beyond...

The Ritual Occasion

The ritual occasion is another general shaping form, but it is less open-ended than the journey. Using this shape emphasizes a particular happening. It also has implications, particularly for the character either the character will achieve greatly or fail greatly in the course of the event. One of the benefits of using the ritual occasion as a shaping device is that it concentrates the drama of the story, creating a useful intensity and a natural rise to the story. Once you determine how you...

Finding a Structure

One observable aspect of the experimental narrative is that no two structures are alike. We can say the story tends to be nonlinear, but beyond that, few structures resemble one another. There are shaping devices A tourist from Japan comes to Hong Kong. What will he find Can he relate to the Chinese He finds a Chinese girl, and they strike up a relationship. That relationship is unpredictable. They must use English to communicate rather than their own language. In the above example, the...

Case Study In Character Sleeping Beauties

In Karyn Kusama's Sleeping Beauties reprinted in Appendix B , two adolescent sisters prepare for bed. They smoke a cigarette and share a fantasy about a young man on a motorbike who will come and take them away. They go to sleep. They hold hands, thereby acknowledging the love between them. Such a motorcycle rider actually does appear, and the dominant sister decides that the more modest sister should join him. She does so. The one who is left behind feels abandoned. Her sister returns. They...

The Process Of Visualization

The first step in visualization is to consider the way you tell your story. We suggest that telling a story in the present is more effective than a retrospective approach. Presenting a story so that it seems to be occurring as we are watching it, gives the story immediacy and energy and puts the writer in the strongest position to direct the way the story will take place. Telling the story retrospectively means telling it in the past tense, therefore making it more distant. Telling the story in...

Dialogue As Dramatic Action Text Subtext And Context

In art, as in life, gesture and speech have to be seen or heard in context in order to be fully understood. Someone may say, Come in, and close the door after you, in a manner that implies a request for privacy, suggests wonderful things to follow, or threatens your physical well-being. In order to grasp the subtext of a particular line or gesture in any script the text that is, in order to grasp its underlying or implicit meaning we need to place it in proper context, to examine that line or...