Thursday, April 16, 2015

New SCRIPTMONK article in Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Once again, you can find my latest theory & craft article not here on scribbler, but published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine (their site design is much nicer, anyway).


The follow-up to my last article, this one delves even deeper into the cinematic audience's three levels of psychological need (the intellectual, the emotional, and the visceral) by showing how great storytellers manage to drive audiences nuts with fear, anxiety, and pleasure by creating conflicts between those needs. Films studied are Alien (the visceral vs. the intellectual), Rocky (the visceral vs. the emotional), and The Godfather (conflict between all three). Plus, you get to see my insanely handsome picture. You know you want to see it.

http://creativescreenwriting.com/

Sunday, April 12, 2015

SCRIPTMONK Goes to the Movies: WHIPLASH -- An Intimate "Small Man Rises"


I admit I'm a little late to the party on this film. Whiplash was released in theaters way back in January and has since collected three Oscars, but it can still be seen in select theaters and is now available on video, so I highly recommend checking it out if you have not already.

Whiplash, by all traditional measurements was a sleeper hit. A small-budget independent film, no A-list actors in the cast, and a premise which does anything but scream high-concept. Though a lot of credit it owed to its great performances and the amazing on-screen musical skill of its star Miles Teller, the secret to the film's success as a work of storytelling originates from the fact that it takes a tried-and-true (and due to its constant overuse in Hollywood, all-too-familiar) narrative Plot Pattern and renders it almost unrecognizable to the viewer into something which seems altogether fresh and new. Whiplash manages to nail what often seems to be a contradictory demand made of writers and filmmakers, to “give something new, yet familiar.” Though the film's surface content may seem to be material which seems rarely if ever explored in a major feature film, under that surface Whiplash follows a specific and distinctive Plot Pattern (also known on this blog as a “Story Type”) which we have all seen and enjoyed many times before.

I am referring specifically to the “Small Man (or Woman) Rises” story type, the second of my 20 Common Plot Patterns as found in Hollywood and American Independent feature films. This pattern is defined as such:

A more or less unremarkable protagonist is selected by an outside power to fulfill a role through which he or she is expected to achieve greatness. Unprepared and often unwilling to fill this role, the protagonist first requires the guidance and nurturance of supporting characters to expose and eliminate the flawed attitudes or behaviors that block the hero's path to greatness. Later developments present a series of tests which force the hero to recognize and then prove his or her great potential value, usually failing before finding success.

The key defining traits of this plot pattern are first that the hero is chosen by an outside power to participate in the story's quest. Second, the hero's strongest obstacle is not physical, but internal; usually a flaw in the hero's sense of self-worth, value to the world, or personal identity.

This plot pattern can be further broken down into two subtypes:

The Summoned Hero
An inexperienced hero is plucked from obscurity by a higher power to fill a role of great importance. Mentors and other supporting characters nurture the hero in preparation for a final confrontation with a force of antagonism in which the hero must finally prove his or her worth. (Examples: The Matrix, Men in Black, Silence of the Lambs, Kung-Fu Panda)

The Breakaway Hero
A hero is ushered into a system or given an opportunity through which he or she is promised fame, glory, or great personal achievement. However, the protagonist comes to realizes this system is not acting in his or her best interests, often using him or her for their own questionable purposes. The hero then breaks away from that system (often inciting open conflict between the two) whereafter he or she transforms into an independent hero fighting for his or her own personal cause. (Examples: Batman Begins, Rocky, 12 Monkeys)

The most obvious difference between these two subtypes is that is in the Summoned Hero, the protagonist has a positive relationship with those who have chosen him or her for the role, while in the Breakaway Hero, the protagonist develops an antagonistic relationship, ultimately standing against it in direct conflict.

Plotwise, Whiplash belongs to the second subtype. Its protagonist Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), an ambitious young drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music is plucked from obscurity by revered instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to join the Studio Band, Shaffer's elite group of musicians. However, Andrew soon realizes that Fletcher is not a benevolent, nurturing mentor, but an ogre and a tyrant who, (much like Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Begins) uses harsh methods to mold and warp Andrew into the type of person Andrew did not formerly wish to become. (See this previous article for more information on mentor-antagonist relationships.) Due to the love-hate relationship found between protagonists and such mentor-antagonists, Andrew tries to meet all of Fletcher's unreasonable expectations, but eventually rebels against this treatment, turning into Fletcher's enemy, ultimately defeating Fletcher to become an independent hero living on his own terms based on his own personal standards of greatness.

As seen in the other examples of Small Man/Woman Rises narratives listed above, this plot pattern usually lends itself to stories with fantastic premises or those with protagonists put into extraordinary situations. Whiplash however is noteworthy for adapting this form to a premise which is much smaller and more personal, one which the audience can better relate to and identify with their own struggles for worth and accomplishment. Whiplash gains its dramatic impact by taking a superhero-type narrative and placing it into the far more accessible context of the everyday, into a coming-of-age tale of growth and maturity with which the audience can directly identify.



Essential to the Small Man/Woman Rises is how the greatest obstacle standing in the protagonist's path to victory comes not so much the force of antagonism, but the protagonist's own Fatal Flaw. The “Fatal Flaw” is a concept often misunderstood amongst developing storytellers due to the fact that it is often address with much vaguery. The Fatal Flaw is always psychological. All of the protagonist's negative or self-defeating traits arise from a warped or incorrect paradigm – that is, a system of beliefs the protagonist has developed which negatively influence how the character sees him or herself, others, or the world in general. Andrew's Fatal Flaw is that he suffers from what psychologists refer to as an “external locus of self-worth.” This means Andrew views his personal value not on his own terms, but based on approval received from someone or something outside of him over which he has no control. Namely, Andrew judges his value insofar as he can receive Fletcher's approval. Because of this, Andrew willingly puts up with all of Fletcher's abuse because it is only by gaining Fletcher's approval that Andrew senses any personal value. This however proves to be an absurd quest as Fletcher will never, ever give Andrew praise no matter how hard he works or how much he is willing to give. But Andrew does not realize this, and like a hamster on wheel keeps charging harder and harder after what he cannot receive, becoming miserable and destroying himself in the process. If Andrew is ever to find any success or happiness, he must abandon this flawed paradigm in favor of one which is healthier, more productive and more accurately reflects the truth of the world in which he lives (a process known in screencraft as conversion or value realignment). Andrew must shift away from an external locus of self-worth to an internal one, one where his sense of personal value is based on his own standards rather than any imposed from outside.

Conflict is always the key to character change. Conversely, character change is always the key to overcoming that conflict. They are two problems which solve each other. Andrew's external locus of self-worth drives him in reckless and obsessive pursuit of Fletcher's impossible standards. But by following his flaw, Andrew is pursuing his goals the wrong way. His actions do nothing to solve the conflict, rather they only make it worse. Continually denied what he desires, Andrew eventually snaps, attacks his mentor and in the process loses everything he has so far struggled to achieve. Fortunately, these mounting failures provide Andrew with a mountain of evidence that once reflected upon lead Andrew to a moment of self-revelation. He comes to realize that it is foolish and self-defeating to bank his sense of personal worth on the approval of someone who is too cruel and indifferent to give it. True self-worth can only come from oneself. To be at peace with one's own value, one must set their own standards of accomplishment and then pursue those standards for no one's approval but one's own. So, like the title character of Rocky, another Breakaway Hero narrative, Andrew reevaluates his goals and sets new objectives by which he can achieve a sense of worth on his own terms. By shifting from an external locus of worth to an internal one, Andrew finds the strength of will to finally stand up to and ultimately defeat his oppressor, by no longer playing by Fletcher's rules, but by his own. In the end, like in other Breakaway Hero narratives, Andrew stands on his own two feet as an independent hero who find greatness by acting according to his own personal values and beliefs.

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'.” This is the philosophy that Fletcher lives by. Though this may sound cruel, Fletcher does make a good point. By withholding praise, Fletcher tries to push Andrew to become the best he can possibly be. But as the narrative plainly shows, this has both a positive and negative impact upon Andrew's struggle for accomplishment. By combining Fletcher's philosophy with Andrew's absurd quest for approval, the whole of Whiplash is unified by a thematic message on the damage an external locus of self-worth can cause an individual, even when the attention received from the external locus is positive. As long as someone lives their life by another person's standards, their life will be limited by those standards. If those outside standards are too low, the individual will stop once they are reached and may never realize their full potential. If on the other hand, the standards are impossible to reach, the individual will live in constant misery. Through the pressures of the story conflict, Andrew is makes a change in his character and in the process learns (along with the audience) an eternally-valuable lesson about leading a healthy and productive human existence. Though its story may be small and intimate, though its content may seem very different, Whiplash brings the same emotional impact as such films as Rocky, Batman Begins, or other similar narratives by following the same structure and delivering the same basic message: true heroes first accomplish greatness by finding the will to stand on their own and base their actions on their own personal high standards, values, and beliefs.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

James Bond and the God Narrative



(The following articles was adapted from a rough excerpt of my upcoming new book Screenwriting and the Unified Theory of Narrative from a section entitled "Alternative Structures.")

It never fails. Whether it be online or in person, in the classroom or elsewhere, whenever someone well-versed in the basic principles of screencraft tries to express certain seemingly-unbreakable axioms of traditional narrative structure, particularly those of the protagonist's character arc, someone inevitably challenges those statements with the same dreaded question: What about James Bond? The “Bond Conundrum” has plagued dramatists for decades. James Bond is inarguably one of the most successful movie heroes of all time, yet the portrayal of the character seems to ignore many of the rules and qualifications usually deemed mandatory for a successful cinematic protagonist. As anyone familiar with screencraft should know, the protagonist's character arc is an essential component of the cinematic story's overall narrative structure, one which the other components interrelate and rely upon for the sake of development and completion. Yet in the Bond films, the protagonist does not seem to possess any identifiable character arc. He does not undergo a process of internal change in reaction to the plot's events. He does not seem to have any clear fatal flaw nor does he pursue an Internal Need. This by large holds true for the supporting characters in these films as well. (This analysis excludes the more recent incarnations of the Bond franchise, starting with 2006's Casino Royale which attempt to humanize the Bond character by putting him in a more traditional mold. For this reason, these films do not pertain this discussion.)

The commonly-offered explanation is that the Bond films have stood apart in the industry by existing from their start as an intentionally-serialized franchise, each instance acting more like episodes in an ongoing television series rather than the individual stand-alone and self-contained narratives we see in other films. This requires the Bond franchise to contain a stable, unchanging cast of characters that can be placed in one adventure after another and always return in the end to the status quo so that, like in television, the episodes can be enjoyed in any order without confusion. Unfortunately, this argument does not explain why the very first appearances of Bond in the films Dr. No (1962) and its follow-up From Russia With Love (1963) were originally successful as stand-alone narratives. Without the individual audience approval of these first installments, the serialized franchise would have never launched in the first place. This seems to suggest that the secret of Bond's success in spite of its infractions upon the standard rules of cinematic storytelling lies elsewhere, presumably in the structure of the individual films themselves.

To find the answer, it is important to note that as a character, James Bond does not in any way seem to be a common mortal man, nor is he even the exaggerated or figurative depiction of a mortal man as those often found in stories with highly fantastic settings or premises. James Bond is super-human. He is even more super-human than the likes of Superman or Hercules, as these heroes still struggle with “human issues” such as internal flaws, ethical dilemmas, or their own personal limitations. James Bond struggles with none of these. Bond is endlessly capable and endlessly self-confident. He never shows fear, never shows doubt, and never loses control of his emotions. Bond does not think, he simply acts – without a moment wasted debating the correctness of those actions. 

No sweat. Just an average day here.
 
In consideration of all of this, my chain of thought, for reasons I cannot remember, led me to the ancient Greek, Roman, and Scandinavian myths I read in my youth. These myths are generally of two types (with the exception of creation or cosmological myths). The first are the hero myths, stories of a mortal man or woman who dares in some way to challenge the gods. This, by various stretches of the imagination, can be considered the form that the vast majority of cinematic stories follow today. The second type are the myths about the gods themselves, in which mortal men play a minimal or nonexistent part. These myths are typically broad in scope, yet somewhat shallow in meaning, composed of tales of gods conflicting with the fickle whims of other deities, supernatural monsters, or other entities, reaching a conclusion which somehow acts to retain the order and balance of the universe.

The behavior and personality of James Bond is very much like that found in the gods in these myths. Bond himself may be considered as a modernized depiction of a god character for several reasons. The first is the effortless skill with which he achieves all things. Second, like a god, his character is unchanging and eternal (the actors who play him may change, but the character essentially remains the same). Third, unlike most movie heroes, Bond has an implied immortality. In most action sequences, the dramatic tension emerges from the audience's fear that the hero will meet some serious harm. However, this fear is never truly present in the Bond films. The audience is always certain that James Bond will find a way to survive no matter how threatening the situation. Finally, and most importantly, Bond never struggles with any kind of questions, ethical or otherwise, regarding his actions. He seems to instantly know the correct path and takes it as if by supernatural instinct. 

Oh, please. You're only amusing him.
 
gods...
The entire Bond franchise can be likened to an eternal saga of cosmic good versus evil in which one
and monsters...
not men
benevolent god continually maintains the order of the universe by keeping an endless supply of malicious gods bent on mischief or ruin in check. Of course, gods of evil are served by various monsters and minions, thus the Bond films are also filled with grotesque henchmen which the hero must continually fool or defeat. But the gods of myth have helpers too, often gaining aid or precious objects from lesser beings such as fairies, spirits, or soothsayers. Likewise, Bond is assisted in his quests by his own collection of “helper deities” such as Q, Miss Moneypenny, or various field agents or operatives, characters who often seem to have their own immortality or quasi-superhuman skills. This theory is further supported by the minimal or nonexistence of characters representing the common, everyday man or woman. If they do appear, they do so as little more than background players with no influence upon the plot's course of events, often doing nothing but look on in awe or occasionally provide Bond with a night of pleasure (gods are typically very lusty beings). By these similarities, it seems feasible to forward the idea that the Bond films do not follow all the traditional rules of narrative structure because they demonstrate an alternate type of narrative, one already established in lore with its own unique rules and structure.


Of course, a theory requires more than one example to hold any water. God narratives are rare, but others do exist. The 1966 Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly follows the samesuch form. Its protagonist (played by Clint Eastwood), a man with no real name and known only by the nickname “Blondie,” is another god-hero. 


He is endlessly capable, endlessly confident, and devoid of strong emotion or moral quandaries. The fact that, unlike Bond, Blondie is a self-serving antihero concerned only with his own wealth does not taint the argument. If one remembers their mythology, it should be recalled that though some gods are benign or hostile towards mankind, most are indifferent to the existence of man and its morality, acting largely to serve their own pleasures. Indeed, Blondie behaves as if he is both outside of and above the world of the common man. Neither their worries, their causes, nor even their law are of any concern to him. His only real struggles comes from the constant tricks and treachery played on him by story's two other larger-than-life beings; the impish trickster Tuco and the shape-shifting devil Angel Eyes – two characters with many mirrors in mythology. Blondie's character does not change. Like a deity, his character is eternal and unchanging. This is principally because he had no need to change. Blondie's physical abilities are already perfect, therefore no flaw could exist to interfere with them. As an “idealized being” of his place and time, he essentially lacks nothing, so unlike a traditional hero, he has no Internal Need which he must pursue to improve as an individual. In times of trouble, Blondie never needs question whether his past behavior is to blame or seek moral guidance in the future. It is all merely another up or down in an eternal battle of good and evil. Even when things are at their worst, Blonde is usually rescued by some random twist of fate, suggesting that there is some cosmic order in which he hold a part.

Like the Bond films, the conclusion of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly does not suggest that the hero's adventures have wrapped up and come to an end as they do in most. This story seems only to have been a brief episode in an endless saga which will continue on for the hero, though most of it we never get to see. The film's end is merely a pause in the existence of its unchanging god-hero.


A god narrative of a far difference character is found in the film Forrest Gump. While The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly only presents a few episodes in a suggested saga, Gump shows the saga of its hero in it near entirety. Gump's narrative presents a very non-traditional structure composed of a series of adventurous episode, one after another. The only thread which holds Gump together into anything suggesting the traditional three-act form is the one story element which never changes: Forrest's continuing desire to find Jenny and make her his love. The rest of the film, in its epic saga form, is really nothing more than the many ways an immortal god-hero like Forrest finds to fill his time while waiting to meet his Jenny again.

It might be difficult to imagine Forrest as a god-hero, however his character demonstrates the same non-traditional qualities as James Bond or Blondie. First, by way of his slow-witted and simple-minded nature, Gump perpetually exists outside of the world of the common man. He walks amongst them, but he is not one of them. Forrest's simple-mindedness actually has the effect of elevating him above others as a virtuous being. He cannot lie, he cannot hate, he cannot understand the petty arguments, prejudices, greed and anger which often consume the common mortal's life. He can almost be considered a being without sin. Second, one cannot deny that Forrest's physical skills border on the supernatural. He has the speed to become a college football All-American with no major effort. He has the strength to carry five Army buddies to safety. He becomes a world-class ping pong player only months after first picking up a paddle. He's the only captain with the skill to keep his shrimp boat from being destroyed in a hurricane. The examples go on and on. Third, he has an implied immortality both in a physical and metaphysical sense. He is not only immortal in body as he survives Vietnam and the hurricane, but immortal in spirit. As the decades pass, Gump's exploits pop up in the national media again and again, as if he were unknowingly some sort of cosmic thread uniting American history. Fourth and most importantly, like Bond and Blondie, Forrest never suffers any ethical dilemma or confusion over what actions to take. Thanks to his simple mind and pure heart, he does not think, he simply does and always comes out in the right. 

Isn't it weird how I keep showing up at these things?
 
As a character, Forrest Gump does not have any fatal flaw which he must overcome. Though his naivete and childish innocence do pose difficulty in his ability to understand people and situations, this is not a fatal flaw in the traditional sense. First, this is part of Forrest's innate nature, a trait which essentially cannot be changed. Second, this “flaw” is actually Forrest's greatest virtue since his innocent mind is the tool which leads him time and again down the correct paths to overcome conflicts and succeed with hardly any effort.


The Bond franchise, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Forrest Gump. Here we have three examples of highly-successful films of non-traditional structure in which the protagonists all share the same unusual heroic traits. These successes are not freak occurrences in the one-and-only monostructure of cinematic storytelling, but evidence suggesting an alternate form of structure, one with significant parallels found in the existing god narratives of myth – perhaps even providing the modern evolution of these tales. However, any further understanding of this structure and how it functions will require further investigation and hopefully uncover many more examples of its type.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

New CS Article! -- "Visceral Storytelling"

Though new articles have been slow in coming here on scribbler, please check out my most recent article published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine!


The article introduces the cinematic audience's three levels of psychological need; the intellectual, the emotional, and the visceral; and then uses a popular theory on human brain evolution to both explain why this is, and why among the three needs that the visceral is most important when it comes to providing an exciting and dramatically-satisfying experience to its audience.  A must-read for any dull script that cannot seem to grab the reader's excitement in the way it should.

http://creativescreenwriting.com/

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sorry about the lack of new articles

I know, I know. New content has not been showing up as regularly on this site as it used to. But hopefully I have an acceptable excuse. I am currently working on my follow-up book to Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, and thus all my ideation and creativity has been poured into that as of late. This book will be on advanced topics, this time only containing the ideas and methods I have developed personally. I will try not to starve scribbler entirely, however. I would like to do some more Scriptmonk Goes to the Movies articles. They're fun and informative, and come pretty natural since I always leave the theater wanting to rant about something anyway. But if only the Hollywood will bother to offer me something worth leaving the monastery and seeing... Book updates will be forthcoming, with no doubt a sample chapter or two posted by the end of the year.

scribble on.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Humility Arc

Follow the link below to read an article I recently wrote for Creative Screenwriting Magazine. The topic is the "Humility Arc," a new concept of mine I consider to be one of the most significant discoveries I have made since publishing Screenwriting Down to the Atoms.


The Humility Arc finds in a most unlikely source an elegantly simple structure which all evidence seems to suggest has been adopted with near-universality into the Hollywood feature film, providing a fundamentally simple and easy to understand perspective on the concept of the Character Arc and its relationship to the story.

http://creativescreenwriting.com/

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Learning Movies By Watching Movies: Watching FAST and Watching SLOW



WATCHING MOVIES FAST

I like to watch movies in fast-forward. Not the first time, of course. There would be little point in that. Rather, when studying a film in order to learn from it. Strange as it may sound, I recommend this as something you should try as well.

I originally started to do this as a way to save time. Whenever I am preparing a blog article or have a particular area of screencraft I wish to study, I always have to re-watch three, four, sometimes up to a dozen films for research. But frankly, I don't have that much time in my day. Movies are long. So to cut down on research time, I began to take advantage of a feature on my laptop's movie player that allows playback at 1.5x speed (50% faster than usual) without muting the soundtrack. That way, I could still watch every moment of the film in only 2/3 the time.

However, I soon noticed a surprise additional benefit to this. If I was examining these films for anything to do with plot, story structure, or character arc, I found I could see the shape and course of such things quicker and easier than I could have by watching the same film at normal speed. One difficulty that stands in the way of the developing screenwriter who attempts to learn more by watching other films is a feature film's length. To the uninitiated, feature films appear to be such wild, complicated things, but this is actually untrue. Most great films have very simple stories and clear, straightforward structure. However, this is lost on many since they cannot see the forest due to all of the trees. Feature film structure demands a certain number of story sequences, each with their own objectives that must be accomplished through a certain number of scenes (five, six, a dozen or more). In turn, every scene has its own sub-objectives there to advance the story and move the sequence forward, all requiring series of action, exchanges of dialogue, sounds, images, and the use of camera and editing. The result is that the viewer gets lost in the details and finds it hard to see the overall shape and movement of the story as a whole. Being stuck in the moment, that bit of screencraft executed only a few scenes ago becomes a fading memory. This may be good for the viewing experience (good story structure should by nature stay hidden under the surface), but difficult for those trying to use the film as a learning tool.

In short, I owe a good deal of my film education to being impatient. Watching films at 1.5x speed compressed the overall narrative, allowing me to better see and remember how one event led to the next, how one turning point related to the one before it. Zipping through scenes caused me to no longer dwell all my attention on each individual shot and line of dialogue, but instead see the scene as a whole, and thus taking away only the general movement of the scene; what was done, what was accomplished, how it was accomplished, and how its outcome changes the course of the film, leads to the next story action, and advances the sequence to its next structural turning point. You could call it a “bullet-point” method of viewing a film. Light on details, heavy on function.

This tactic will of course give you no help when it comes to learning proper pacing and scene construction (the method I describe next will do worlds of good for this). Nor do I wish to undervalue the importance of the little details of plot, theme, and character (the difference between a good story and a great film is usually found within the use of these very details). But if what you seek to understand is the broader movements of story and structure, how each scene and sequence works together to create one cohesive and functional narrative, I strongly suggest you give this a try. 150% may sound a little fast, but it is not. In fact, I was surprised to find that a lot of films (mostly poor or painfully mediocre films) actually play better at this speed. Unless the film has unusually quick-paced dialogue or dizzying-quick action sequences, you will not miss a thing – as long as you are paying attention. (If you are going to be multitasking, its wisest to play the movie at its normal speed.)

One technical problem is that most movie or video players automatically mute the soundtrack when playing at faster speeds. Watching at 1.5x speed is not much help without sound. I am no expert on audio-video products, so you will have to test this out at home or experiment with the various media players you can get online. I use Toshiba's proprietary DVD player to do this on my laptop and the Playstation 3 can do this in my living room.

I should add to this that when it comes to analyzing films you have seen multiple times, films you have watched on so many occasions that you can now recite dialogue and no longer even need the sound to follow each scene, you can watch these films EVEN FASTER. Last month, I needed to re-watch Back to the Future and got through the entire film in under twenty minutes. What does this do? It turns every scene and sequence into a tight, concise brick of action. You don't watch the scene, you instead receive the concept of the scene, the idea of the scene; basically why it exists and how that brick fits into the structural whole. It's a bit like reading a written point-by-point breakdown of the film, but far better, as you can observe how each event directly causes the next, how the flow of action to action moves the narrative forward. It is difficult, almost impossible, for one to remember every essential structural point after observing a full two-hour length film in one sitting. That is expecting a lot from your memory. But the same seen all in twenty minutes? Far easier. The whole film's structure now sits firmly inside your head.


WATCHING MOVIES SLOOOOOOOOW

When it comes to using films as a learning tool, it is also good to watch them slow. I mean, really slow. Not in slow-motion, mind you. I don't see any use in that (at least not at the moment). I am speaking of a technique called the “START/STOP”, something found in UCLA & USC Screenwriting instructor William Froug's book Zen and the Art of Screenwriting, Volume 2. Used correctly, this technique can teach you more from watching a single film than you might in an entire semester-long course on the craft.

Step 1: Select a film to study. Make sure it is a film that is top-notch in terms of its storytelling, one you love and admire, and ideally one similar to the types of stories you wish to create. I also suggest choosing a film that remains fairly traditional in its approach to storytelling, one considered to be the “gold standard” of its genre or type, so its lessons can may be widely applied to your own narratives, rather than something like a three-hour nonlinear art film that stands out from the crowd simply by being so different. Also (this is optional) find a copy of the film's screenplay. In most cases, you can download these screenplays online in .pdf or .doc form. You can also find many published in book form in local libraries. You will want to refer to the written script from time to time.

Step 2: Watch the film in one sitting from beginning to end. Get an overall view of the shape and form of its story, but while watching also try to identify the most important elements of its storytelling from a screenwriter's point of view; where and what are the plot's major dramatic turning points, how does the protagonist's character change over the course of events and what causes this to happen, what thematic elements seem to be present, and anything else that may jump out at you as unusual or important. As soon as the film fades to black, start writing about your observations. Do this right away while the film is still fresh in your head. You can take as much time as you need and go into as much detail as you like, but one to two full pages should be enough. Include any questions you might have regarding how the storyteller accomplished one thing or another. Make note of any particularly memorable scenes. Also mention your viewing experience on an emotional level. How did the story make you feel throughout its course? Was this the storyteller's intention? Take a moment to hypothesize on how and why the storyteller managed to move your emotions this way.

Step 3: Here comes of the fun part. And by fun, I mean grueling. Go back to the first scene of the film. Watch it to the scene's conclusion. Go back to its start and watch it a second time. Watch this one scene again and again if you like. Then, on a clean page write “SCENE #1” followed by a short slug that describes the scene (ex. “JOHN WITH MORTY OUTSIDE BIKER BAR”). Then start writing a thick wad of notes on anything and everything you notice about the execution of that scene in terms of its written craft. Watch the scene over and over to observe it on its most atomic level; shot by shot, line by line. Ask, what is the purpose of this scene? Why is it here? What does it do? How does it do it? What important information is communicated in this scene? How did the storyteller communicate it? Is any of this exposition? Information that will be useful later? Is anything set up secretly that will be paid off in later scenes? How was this executed? What is the conflict in this scene? How does it start? How does it develop? How is its outcome important – or does the scene's conflict exist as a diversion to help deliver what the scene is really about? What is the scene's moment of change that moves the story forward? How does the end of this scene set up the action of the next?

This is only a small sampling of matters to consider. Some scenes give you a lot more material to chew on than others, but try to go far beyond a few simple sentences. Expand your observations into anywhere between a paragraph and a full page or more.

Step 4: Watch the next scene and repeat the process. Then the next scene. Continue on like this for EVERY SINGLE SCENE in the entire film. Every scene. One at a time. Analyzed under the microscope. Until you have reached the movie's end. By the time you have finished, you will know this film like the back of your hand and will have learned more about screencraft than you could have ever imagined.

Don't overlook the short scenes in your START/STOP. Give them the same degree of attention you give all others. Even if the scene lasts only a few seconds, that scene has been put into the film for a reason. It communicates something significant. What is it? The opening scene of Die Hard is nothing but a shot of an airplane coming in for a landing. This may not seem like much, but this simple opening still works to communicate information and set up the following action. Since we are watching this plane, it suggests someone important to the story must be on it. Someone who has just come a long way. Subconsciously, this causes the audience to ask, “Who is this person, where did they come from, and why are they here?” Then, in next scene we learn this person is our hero John McClane, gripping the plane's armrest in fear (which suggests he must be here for something important if he hates flying this much).

William Froug suggests doing a START/STOP on one film a month for an entire year (which I guess is a lot cheaper than going to film school). However, I must have been a much more hardcore START/STOPPER than Froug ever imagined. He believes an entire film can be finished in only a couple days. Yet whenever I have done this, I worked for one to two hours a day for a month or more. By the time I was finished, I was so exhausted that I didn't want to attempt another film for an entire year. But what a reward! For instance, on my third attempt, as you might tell from the example given above, I chose the film Die Hard (it's still the gold standard for the action genre for a reason – its craft's execution is shockingly pristine!). Using Froug's START/STOP, I learned more from watching this single film than I probably had my entire time attending film school. After two months of work, I had 81 pages of single-spaced type-written notes, so much of it I found so insightful that I had to include it in my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms three years later. 

You can read some of the highlights of this START/STOP in a five-part series of articles I began in 2009 titled “Things I Learned from Die Hard.”

If you want to learn to write by watching movies (and you should), you have to pull yourself outside of the headspace of the casual filmgoer. If learning the craft were that simple, everyone with a stack of DVDs or a subscription to Netflix would already be an expert. You have to watch them smart. Watch them slow. Watch them fast. Watch them repeatedly. Watch them in terms of their tiniest pieces. Watch them in terms of their absolute whole. And do your homework. Write your discoveries down. Writing about it forces to you to think about it and develop that which begins as a tiny vague notion into a fully-realized method of approach. Watch movies like a scientist. Watch movies like a writer.

That's all I got for now. scribble on