BY LAWRENCE KONNER
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In THE INSIDER REPORT.
Our Consulting Editor, Lawrence Konner, responds to the questions many of you have asked regarding the Craft of Screenwriting. His first discussion encompasses many aspects important to our readers. He lays out the Gestalt, the overview on screenwriting and with each succeeding issue will define the needs of our readers and render and in depth discussion of such. View it as our "Internet Screenwriting Course", flexible and malleable enough to mold itself to the needs of our readership.
CHARACTER VS PLOT
The best stories are character-driven as opposed to plot driven because it's the only way that you're going to get a believable situation. If you try to get characters to do what the plot determines, then they're moving falsely. Then it's just writer's intervention that's getting them to move. It seems to me that the ideal situation is to create a character and then put them in a situation.
An audience must first identify with the character rather than the story.
You will never get them to engage fully if they don't believe in this person and this person's dilemma.
Therefore, I think the first thing you should do before writing a script is to sit down and write a biography of that person. It should be as detailed as you want to make it: their background, their schooling, their social class, their interest and most importantly, their dreams.
Dreams are the most important because, almost always, what their dreams are will help you motivate the story. It's something they want.
Characters' weaknesses are essential too. You've got to know about their flaws. It helps feed the story because their flaw is what is going to be part of the obstacle that's going to prevent them from solving the story.
Characters in a good story have a set of outside obstacles to deal with and also a set of internal obstacles to deal with. To the extent to which those two things can be tied together, is to the extent which the story gets better and better.
The story's much less interesting if the protagonist doesn't have some kind of internal conflict or personal problem. Then it's all just "white hat" stuff. The best stories that we remember from myths on down, westerns, detective stories, any kind of genre movie, combine action plot with the internal conflicts. It's as if you can't catch the bad guys until you've beaten your own internal demons. Having more than one layer of conflict is more difficult and that's what separates the average action scripts from the good ones.
ENSEMBLE VS MAIN CHARACTER
And by the way one of the drawbacks to doing an ensemble piece is that it's just harder to do this frankly. Personally, I think very few of them in fact are successful. I would certainly encourage beginning writers to be very careful of that genre.
The advantages to a main character-driven piece, however, is the opportunity to take a character, learn who they are, develop it, and then put them in a situation in which they have to conquer these obstacles or go on this quest. I think the most important thing is to create some sort of internal conflict for the character and then to try to tie the internal and the external conflict together in a way that "Die Hard" does very well or "Hamlet" does brilliantly. I think the best example of an action movie is "Die Hard". Here's a guy who's fighting the bad guys and fighting his own internal demons which is that other story about his wife and his sense of commitment. The fact that those two things are brought together in that story is one of the reasons it's a successful action movie.
I think the best movies, and certainly the best Hollywood movies, have action plots of one sort or another. In my opinion, that's what Hollywood does best. I mean "action" in its broadest sense: good guys and bad guys. Historically that's what Hollywood has been able to do best and it's what the industry exists for. I think it's a structure that moviegoers are familiar with, and I think it's a structure that works in a certain time frame, a couple hours. Frankly, it's a structure that has served stories well. Just look at the Bible. It's full of action plots and bad guys and murders, jealousies, rages, famines, infidelities. Great stories, at least in America, don't tend to closely observe human life, which tends to be better done in novels or plays or perhaps foreign films. You could think of it this way: In a good novel, the story is told by the narrator essentially as the hero's point of view and is largely dependent on the hero's thoughts about things. Therefore, the dramatic action is carried forward often by what the hero is thinking. In a play, which is more active than a novel, the actions are carried forward by their speaking. In a film, it's carried forward by the pictures. I think there are certain genres of movies that you should be able to watch almost silently and still get it.
ON CHARACTER ARC
There is a term called "character arc. First of all, I dislike the term. I think it's one of those terms that has crept into moviemaking in the last decade or so. I know that when the studios were making the great movies of the golden eras past like the 30s, or the late 60s-early 70s, there was nobody asking what the character arc of anybody was. They were just telling stories about people.
The term has come into use because I think people are looking for short cuts to writing screenplays and to thinking about screenplays. I think "character arc" is one of those short cuts. One of the things that happens in the books and the seminars about screenplay writing is again these short cuts.
We live in a world in which more people than ever are writing screenplays. Theoretically they ought to be better just on the basis of percentage. But I don't see that they're getting better. The complaint of most studio executives is that there are not enough good screenplays and writers.
What writers are lacking is not exactly clear to me; but, I think one of the things is that there are these easy solutions that people are looking for: "I'll just have a character arc and I'll just have a certain beat on page 47 because that's what the book says to do." Their material becomes more artificial.
However, I think it's proper to think of things in the three act structure, but that could just simply be beginning,
middle and end. If we understand them simply as: the first act is the introduction of the characters and the conflict, the second act has the development of those conflicts and the extension of them, and the third act has the resolution, that's a helpful thing to do.
These are principles invented by Aristotle and they still hold for drama, any story. They are universal and they work. But I think to the extent that we are looking for certain beats by certain pages, we confine ourselves and that's where the predictability comes in. That's when you see movies where the audience can almost write it for you as they're watching. You don't want to force certain things to happen on certain pages. You want to avoid that type of writing where you decide in advance that a such-and-such thing has to happen on page 60.
What you want to think about when you think about structure is a very general overview of the kinds of things you want to happen in the beginning of the piece, the middle of the piece, and the end of the piece. Not so much by-the-numbers.
If you tell a story about somebody on a quest or somebody being chased, if you think about it properly, it will force itself into a three act structure rather than the other way around.
I don't do a lot of outlining beforehand, but I do an awful lot of thinking outlining. I'm lazy. There can be disadvantages to that. A lot of times, I'll get to page 100 and I realize I should have done something differently back at the beginning. There's an old saying that a third act problem is really a first act problem.
If the character is really strong and the conflict is really clear in the first act, then you're OK. You often find when you get to the third act that something's missing. You're stuck in the third act and you can't figure out what to do. It's often because you haven't set up things properly in the first act. It means you have to go back and look at the character and look at the set-up of the conflict.
First act problems that can exist for you when you get to the end have to do with the character's objective, not defining it clearly enough for yourself before you begin writing.
THE FIRST FIVE PAGES
In regard to the belief that you need to catch the reader's attention in the
first 5-10 pages, in my view, the first five pages should impress the reader with the quality of the writing. That entails everything from proper spelling to having something surprising in those first few pages as well as a description of something visual so that we know this is a movie.
Generally speaking, scripts driven by voice-over usually are not considered a wise move. It's an indication that you haven't done all your work because you aren't able to show these things visually. By getting rid of the voice-over, it forces you to show things in concrete terms. Instead of "Here's what I'm thinking" which puts you back to a novel or a play, the audience "sees what we're doing" which puts you in a movie. There are many, many exceptions to this rule, but it's a good rule to try to write a script without it and be very, very careful and selective in your use of it.
DISTURBING THE READER
Detrimental shortcuts that disturb readers occur when they read clichés on the page, and this is frequent; for instance, when we see things we've seen before or are obviously borrowed
from some place else in another film. The trick to overcoming that is to know your characters and make them say things and do things that are believable.
KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS
When creating your characters you might draw from other people and yourself. It's a little of both. Every good character is one that has something of you in them, that part of you. If you're writing about a mean person, some part of you is mean. If you're writing about someone who's being maternal, we all have some maternal instinct. The more you can access that, the better. Then when it's properly done, the character begins to take a life of his or her own and do things which surprise you. This is another reason I think not to over outline things and not to be concerned about what the books or the seminars tell us about what has to happen on which page. Then you're forcing the character to get to where you want him to get by a certain place.
If you have the characters and the conflict, the characters can write the story for you. A good conflict is one which is a real threat to the characters, either a physical or psychological threat to the character's way of life. If they are able to conquer this conflict, they will come out a changed person.
A trap for inexperienced writers is that they tend to make the stakes life-and-death and they don't always have to be; however, it's OK if they are. But, those stakes ought to intensify, and generally that's what happens in the middle of the story.
Somewhere in the first act, a character needs to behave in a way so that now they can't stop the story. If the story's about a bank robbery, then that point comes when they're in there and their guns are drawn and now there's no turning back. Up to that point, they could have just driven up, said "Maybe this isn't such a good idea", and gone home. That's something people in real life tend to do, but characters in movies can't.
The characters can't be allowed to have that option of escape. Otherwise you don't have a story. There has to come a moment where the story has an inevitability to it.
REELS VS ACTS
I tend to think of movies in reels instead of acts. Sometimes I think that's helpful. Joel Silver, for example, makes sure that because he does action movies that there's a big explosion or chase or something big and "action/filled" in every reel. A reel is ten minutes long. That applies to other than action movies as well. In our case, it would just be something important happening in every reel. By the end of the second reel, there's a place where this inevitability should take over. There is no going back. Each act break should propel you dramatically into the next act, hurl you in fact. They need to be pointing with an arrow directly toward what's coming next.
Somewhere around the second act, obstacles should be so great that most real people would walk away and would give up. The difference between us and the movie characters we write is they don't. They have a little more heroism than we do. It's one of the reasons we admire them. And heroic could just mean another try at making their marriage work. It could be another try at getting their kid off of drugs. It could be another try at getting the girl to love them.
The best case is something in your characters that makes them want to go forward and something that's holding them back at the same time.
This isn't in most scripts because it's hard work. It takes a lot of rewriting usually.
INEVITABLE BUT NOT PREDICTABLE
Robert Towne has made the comment that an audience will forgive a lot at the beginning but very little at the end. If the story is constructed properly up to that point, then the ending should be inevitable but not predictable.
This is an important distinction. It's a very subtle line here.
Generally speaking, for example, we know that the hero is going to live. You could say that's predictable. Of course he's going to beat the bad guy. But if you can make the twists and turns unusual enough and entertaining enough, then you're on the right side of that predictability and inevitability line.
Ideally, you always want your characters' actions to determine those twists and turns. That's what you're always striving for. It's not necessarily conscious, but you're always trying for it consciously or unconsciously.
The more you can find a theme that unites the plot and the character and think about that theme as you're writing, the better off you'll be determining the story's structure.
"Taxi Driver," is a brilliant example of this. A theme to that movie would be alienation leading to violence. You pick a character who you want to be alienated. Well, what better place to put somebody alienated than New York City? And then what better job to give them than taxi cab driver, sort of interacting with people all day and yet not?
CHARACTER COME BEFORE THEME?
There's no rule as to whether a character comes before the theme, but they both have to be there. Setting should support the theme, character should support the theme, and the story should support the theme. And the theme should be an active one. Generally, you think of a story first, something that interests you. Then, you have to think about what theme you want to support because otherwise, I think you get lost.
I would recommend Lajos Egri's book "The Art of Dramatic Writing" which is essentially a book about playwriting; but, it's the most helpful book I've ever read about creating a dramatic story in terms of character, conflict, protagonist, antagonist, building of the conflict, and having the elements serve a theme.
WRITING THE ANTAGONIST
Antagonists need as much background information as protagonists. The better movies have fully-dimensional bad guys. It needs to be a good character so that when you cut to them doing their plotting, you're interested. Also, it creates a challenge that forces the hero to rise higher. Anybody could defeat a stupid bad guy, or anybody could defeat a non-persistent bad guy. Anybody could defeat a bad guy without tremendous drive. In order to make the situation heroic, we need to put our character in a situation where, as I said earlier, other people might pack up and go home.
BREAKING WITH CONVENTION
People want to break from mainstream, Hollywood conventions because they feel they're a straitjacket. A straitjacket is a good metaphor for what books and seminars teach. You have to have some guidance, you have to some external notions about the flow of the story. You want to build a highway to travel down, but you also want it to have exit ramps and on-ramps that aren't predetermined, rest stops along the way that aren't expected. I think studio executives think it's a straitjacket too. I think writers ought to feel freer to try to break out of that system.
Unfortunately young, inexperienced studio executives rely on those rules because they're insecure as well. In order to break out of the straitjacket, everybody has to say "Wait a minute, this is a little bit different".
Most truly successful films are different and are risk-taking in some way. "Forrest Gump" is an example of that, and "Apollo 13" is an example of that.
Even these movies follow a general, conventional storytelling structure.
A general, conventional storytelling structure is necessary. If you want to violate those rules, those beginning, middle and end rules, and be truly avant garde, then I'm not sure that you're going to be helped by anybody's advice on screenwriting.
The only advice you can get is somewhat conventional, but those kinds of stories have worked for thousands of years and will continue to work. The thing is to find new ways to tell them and surprise along the way.
See you next time.
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