Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Screenwriting Formula

Been reading stuff on writing lately. This stuff very plainly lays out the formula for Hollywood films, which lets face it, can be very powerful entertaining and fun, but can also be predictable and dull. But knowing the formula and thinking behind it makes it easier to use the formula's strengths and side step if you don't want that flavor.

The Screenwriting Formula by Rob Tobin, an easy read with lots of examples from recent films.

Quick summary: you need a hero, ally, and opponent. The opponent should somehow be the cause of the inciting incident. And there needs to be a character plot (learn how to open up to people) and a straight plot (stop the bomb).

Full notes:
Screenplay typically: Act One=25-30 pages, Act Two=60 pages, Act Three=30 pages (screenplay page typically=1 minute movie time)
Act 1 is about defining and describing the hero. Movies are short we only have time for people to have 1 major flaw. Also need to show hero's redeeming qualities so audience will be interested/care enough about them to see them through. Show hero's motivation, and point of view so audience understands hero. Introduce opponent and maybe the ally, end with the inciting incident.

Act 2 (first part)you need to figure out the driving force aka objective storyline (ie. stopping the bomb) and the real point aka subjective storyline (ie learning to love again). The commercial hook you're gonna sell the film with is the objective storyline, like a boy finds a space alien in his closet E.T., a down and out loser gets a one in a million shot at boxing championship of the world -Rocky. Objective storyline often provides a time limit. Act 2 starts with hero's emotional response to the inciting incident, then their physical response (what they actually do). Ally offers help. Hero makes a plan against opponent. Hero balks at giving up flaw (ally might have to finish 1st plan). Opponent counter attacks and states their point of view. Ally challenges hero about balk. Stakes are raised (bomb's gonna kill more people). Hero confronts their flaw, reconnects with ally partially redeems themself and they bond, big fight with Ally (hero doesn't want to give up their flaw, ally wants them to) hero explains flaw Ally reveals own struggles.

Act 2 (second part) Hero chooses flaw or opportunity (let 'em blow up, I'd rather not risk loving). Hero and Ally unite against opponent. Stakes get higher again (gonna blow up the moon too). Opponent counters, situation is becoming a mirror of the one that created the flaw in the first place. Stakes higher (gonna blow up the ocean). Hero breaks own rules, but even that doesn't help. Opponent does something making hero really choose flaw or opportunity and reveals full extent of danger (highest tension point heroes on the edge of the cliff hanging by his pinky toes). Events are now a complete mirror of the origin of the flaw (flashback may be necessary). Final decision. (sometimes a chance to revoke final decision and backslide.)

Act 3. (Act 2 was apparently find opponent, catch opponent, train to fight opponent seems like the authors chronology doesn't quite agree with himself. All or nothing (guess we're back on the cliff with pinky toes). Damage to hero mounts. Low point for hero, then discovers a way to fight back. Audience learns of the full threat. Hero learns of the full threat. Final battle, fully engaged. Hero restates point of view. Battle over win or lose. Optional final twist, should raise raise the emotional stakes of the battle and lend an edge or some irony to the whole act.

7 Elements of a screenplay:

Hero - sympathetic or interesting enough for us to want to know what happens to them and follow them for 2 hours. (humans relate to humans, a story about a tornado is not as interesting as a story about a tornado chaser)

Hero's flaw - viewed by the hero as a behavior that protects them in life. "All stories are essentially about a hero who has to overcome his flaw in order to accomplish some worthwhile goal. Thus the hero (and audience) faces innate conflict choosing between the worthwhile goal, and the necessary for survival flaw." Figuring out the flaw, you'll probably create the backstory to find the original event that created the flaw as a defense mechanism. Brokeback Mnt. flaw=fear that if being himself will get him killed, Rocky=fear of getting in a situation where he will prove he's a loser.

Enabling Circumstances
- how the hero's placed themselves in life to maintain the survival flaw. The Wedding Crashers who are terrified of intimacy work in a divorce law firm

- the one who instigates the inciting incident and prevents the hero from achieving their goal. The opponent could have the hero's best interest at heart, opponent/ally is very common in romances. Forest Gump the opponent is Jenny, who prevents Forest from his fulfilling his goal of being with her. Million Dollar Baby Maggie is the opponent because she forces Frankie to open up and care about her.

Hero's Ally - Helps the hero overcome their flaw, spends the most screen time with them, especially during Act 2. If the ally fails it's a tragedy. Ally suggests how the hero should proceed, through advice, example (bad or good), or some other way. Brokeback Mnt. Jack risks his life living true to himself, hopefully inspiring the hero to do the same. Forest Gump they gave Jenny the flaw (mistrusts men) and Forest does the ally thing of being a good man no matter what, so she can overcome her flaw.

Life-Changing Event - Comes at the end of Act 1, usually instigated by opponent, forces hero to choose between their flaw and an opportunity (key point).

Jeopardy - "asking someone to give up their flaw should be like asking someone to take off their bulletproof vest in a gun battle."

Choose a few elements and use them to figure out the rest. If you have a woman who is afraid to make connections, you can decide that her enabling circumstances is defining herself with her job, and her opponent's going to be an autistic nephew who's parents die and she becomes the caretaker, etc. Knowing your flaw helps you build a backstory that makes your character real. The hero's goal doesn't always help them, the author's example is of a miser who wants to hold onto all his money and so becomes lonely and isolated and unable to actually enjoy his wealth with the opponent being a generous loving person wanting the miser to help a worthwhile cause. The flaw has to be possible to overcome, a guy without a hand can't have to play piano in carnegie hall.

Use the Elevator Pitch to make sure that your story has the required parts. The pitch should sum up the objective and subjective stories within 2 sentences. "A meek and alienated little boy finds a stranded extraterrestrial in his closet and has to find the courage to defy authorities to help the alien return to it's home planet." A "high concept" pitch sells itself. High concept has a definite identity for the hero(lawyer), hero's flaw relates to identity (lies to get his own way), event forces hero to choose between flaw and opportunity (can't lie anymore, quit job or find a new way), idea is new not a rehash, sense of irony (more ironic for a lawyer not to be able to lie then a plumber). Being able to immediately imagine consequences from the inciting incident is a good sign. (a priest falling in love with a woman)Think extreme opposites. (plumber being forced to tell the truth is not as opposite as a lawyer)

Intrinsically conflicted characters are more interesting. A mathematical genius working at MIT, as a janitor.

He says titanic is not on any Top Best Movies lists, so he uses his formula to make it a better story (he says it was the $250million budget & $50 million ad budget that made it so big.) There's 2 heroes, he chooses to go with Rose. He says Rose has too many flaws (5), you need 1 flaw so that the EVENT and story can work around it. There's only 2 major events in the movie, Rose falls in love, the boat sinks, they are not related. So he decides to make Rose's flaw that she gives up true love to marry for money (currently in the movie it's Rose's mother who wants her to marry for money). Jack is the ally/opponent, as the 1 true love, he moves their affair to backstory before getting on the boat. Then he contrasts Rose in the upperclass sailing with her Fiance to America, with seeing Jack in the steerage representing her love, her self, and her people that she comes from. So the life changing event is her discovering the lover she thought she left behind is on the boat with her so she must really make a choice between love and luxury. So the whole movie is about Rose choosing between staying with the upperclass above, or returning to the hard life of the poor below for love. So the original elevator pitch: "A callow young woman who is engaged to a handsome, wealthy man she does not love takes up with a young street urchin who teaches her to spit and have sex in the back seat of a car on the maiden voyage of the Titanic." vs. his new version:"A desperate young Irish woman who abandons her one true love, as well as her family, country, and heritage, to marry for money. She boards a luxury liner with her rich fiance, headed for an American wedding, only to discover that her lover has followed her aboard...on the maiden voyage of the Titanic."

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