Category Archives: Structure
A couple of years ago I was happily watching The Walking Dead on SKY and enjoying it immensely. However, we changed our TV provider, losing access to the series, and I was in the wilderness for a couple of years until we got back onto Sky and the first 6 series were available to me again. So, this summer, I started binge-watching TWD to get caught up from Series 3 to 6 ready for the return of Series 7 in October this year.
I wasn’t disappointed, the show is wonderfully written, directed and acted with great characters that I cared for so, by the end of Series 6, as Negan waved his baseball bat around in front of “our group” I was fairly tense and worried for all their futures.
Then the series ended, without the revelation of who was at the receiving end of “Lucille.”
At this point I was caught up and Series 7 had yet to start, so I had a look online to read some opinions of the series. I know the internet is not always the best place to go looking for “opinions” but I was amazed at the amount of vitriol aimed at the writers/production team for leaving us with a cliffhanger.
Do we now really need to have everything on a plate? Can people no longer wait for gratification in a world were we can pretty much get what we want, when we want it? I am sure there was a time when people would be happy to wait for gratification between episodes? What about leaving your audience wanting more or generating suspense and tension?
Was there as much of an uproar at the end of The Empire Strikes Back when we were left in limbo? Perhaps there would have been if the internet had existed in it’s current form but, for me, it just made things more exciting. I don’t necessarily WANT to wait, but it works to keep me coming back for more.
I’m thinking about this on the day I read, apparently, that the entire plot lines for the next Series of Game of Thrones have been leaked online.
I haven’t read them and have no plans to. I am happy to wait for the actual show, why would I want to spoil it now? As with the “death” of Jon Snow, surely the fun of having to wait for the next series is speculation with other fans about what might be going to happen?
Leaking plots like that is clearly a result of our “want it now” society and it’s sad that people struggle to wait for plot lines to develop naturally, unable to tolerate a season finale that includes a cliffhanger. Obviously, it is great if some strands are tied up, but why come back for more if all plot threads are finished in any one season?
I like cliffhangers and the Season 6 cliffhanger for TWD was brilliant; it left me wanting more and looking forward to the next season. I wanted to know what happened next, but I wasn’t going to moan at the writers, or scream about how unfair it was. It generates interest and a desire to see more.
But do you like them? Do you use them in your writing, or do you think they are a cheat?
Would love to hear what other people think about this…
… don’t leave me hanging!
(Obviously there are exceptions to the rule such as American Horror Story, before anyone starts – although you do get cliffhangers at the end of episodes rather than the season.)
A common “rule” in screenwriting that most of us have heard, usually when starting out is, “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s an attempt to steer us away from lengthy exposition scenes or having characters tell us, moment by moment what is going on. We are writing “moving pictures” so let’s stick to that and leave lengthy dialogue to the politicians.
However, as a “tool” it can be very useful and remind us to think carefully about the scenes, sequences and how our stories are structured. There are times when it is absolutely right that we show something visually, rather than have a character describe it. But, of course, like any other screenwriting rule, it is not always going to be the most appropriate way to write your scene. For every good example, there will be a bad example and for each of those good examples, I am sure you will be able to find another great example of a character “telling” the audience.
One of the examples explored in the Shorescripts link below is Quint’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis in Jaws (1975). The speech is a long one, but a powerful one. The intensity and emotion of the experience is all there on screen as Robert Shaw recounts the events of the sinking and being hunted by sharks. It is a clear example of someone “telling” the audience and it works superbly. Would it have been better to “show” the audience? How would you do that? I’m not sure… a flashback? Possibly, but a flashback can be damaging to a film; a jarring interruption that takes you out of the flow of the scene. “Telling” worked in this case.
But “showing” can also work. You just have to get it right, just as with any screenwriting tool. Know when and how best to use it for the story you are telling at the time.
The reason I got to thinking about this was seeing the end of episode 1 of the new Westworld series.
Some spoilers coming up if you haven’t seen Episode 1 yet!
Towards the end of the episode there is a mass recall of “hosts” (the androids that populate the games in Westworld) because of a glitch relating to a recent update. Evan Rachel Wood’s Delores is one of those hosts and she is questioned by park staff to check her programming. During this process, Delores is asked whether she would “ever hurt a living thing.” In true Azimovian style, the hosts in Westworld are programmed not to hurt any of the guests and Delores answers unequivocally in the affirmative that, no, she would never hurt a living thing.
As the show ends, she walks out onto the veranda of her home, as she has every morning for however long she has been in her current role, past the host playing her father (newly changed from her previous glitching father), to look out over the prairie and absentmindedly swats a fly on her neck.
How good was that?
Simple, subtle but brimming with power and coolly setting up the coming storm that we all know is coming.
Don’t get led blindly down the “Show, Don’t Tell” alley just because you think that is what you have to do. As with all our screenwriting tools, be aware of it, learn how to use it and chose your moments – and blow your audience’s mind.
Alexandra Browne – Author!
Anyone who has spent more than a few seconds on this blog will be aware that, as well as writing, I enjoy a bit of astronomy and the occasional effort at astrophotography (very occasional considering the current trend in cloudy weather in the UK). Through a forum dedicated to astronomy you meet lots of interesting people and, in one thread, I even discovered some who shared similar non-astro interests. The forum is the Stargazers Lounge by the way, in case you fancy having a look.
Alex was one such person who also turned out to be an author and was just in the process of getting her first book self-published. “I’m not Smelly the Pirate” was the first publication from Alex in a planned series of “I’m not….” books that includes spiders and snot monsters – sure to be a hit with the kids.
So I thought it might be fun to “interview” Alex about her writing, her approach to her work and her advice for up and coming writers. While I know a children’s book is a very different entity from a Screenplay, I am sure there are plenty of similarities when it comes to the tools and tricks of the trade.
I sent Alex a series of questions and below you can find the full interview with her. I hope you find it as interesting as I did. And please do check out her book and website to explore her world!
So, Alex, can you introduce yourself?
I’m 54 years of age but never grew up! I’m a civil servant and have one child, a beautiful 17-year-old daughter called Maia. I’m a mad amateur astronomer with a passion for imaging. I hate staying up late, have poor night vision and little technical ability, which are slight set-backs in this hobby! So why take it on? It’s the most fascinating, frustrating and rewarding hobby, and I guess I’m a sucker for punishment! I love exotic animals and invertebrates and have kept praying mantids, horsehead grasshoppers, stick insects, giant Madagascan hissing cockroaches and more. Oh, and fancy rats. My menagerie is now limited to two with a giant African millipede called Georgie and a baby corn snake called Sprite. I wish I had the time, money and space for more! I have also just got into imaging microscopic subjects (I used to be a path lab technician in light and electron microscopy) especially pond life and have been blown away by the variety of creatures we never see with the naked eye.
So what drove you to writing?
I think it’s in the blood. My family all love writing. I used to tell ghost stories when I was a kid, to the younger children of the village, making up the story as I went along. The stories were often about underground tunnels and glowing red eyes! I occasionally wrote short stories, usually sci-fi or horrors, when I was young. My brother hopes to publish his own children’s stories which I will be illustrating for him.
And what made you want to write for children?
It started with a book for my then toddler daughter, Maia, to teach her about astronomy. It’s called ‘Maia and the Shooting Star’ and even has a little foreword from the late and great Sir Patrick Moore, but I never published it. With the advent of self-publishing and the excellent CreateSpace from Amazon, I will revisit the book and publish it. I just loved it so much that I had to do more, and that’s when the ‘I’m Not . . .’ series of books came to mind. At first, it was a book to stop children being scared of spiders, which I love (anything with an exoskeleton!). But when I started writing it, it just didn’t work. Something was wrong. Then I realised it was too sweet and twee. That’s not me at all! And, with a now older child, I realised how much kids like poo, snot and farts and all sorts of niffy stuff! So the spider became very much a scary spider trying to convince various terrified people and animals that she isn’t, in fact, scary and all hell breaks loose. The writing then started to flow and I spent most of my time giggling. That will be my third book. The next is the very snotty ‘I’m Not Cute the Snot Monster’. ‘I’m Not Funny the Chick’ is still in its infancy and will be weird!
You’ve published the first book in your “I’m not…” series of children’s books, how does it feel to be published?
I feel so satisfied after all my hard work to see it finally in print and looking so colourful and professional! I’m also very aware of how difficult it is to be seen among the masses of self-published books, so I’m having to do some leg work to get it noticed. I got an article in my local newspaper, the Buckingham and Winslow Advertiser, on 22 June (see here). I have approached schools if they would accept my reading to the children and hopefully do book signings. Then there are book fairs etc. It’ll be initial financial outlay for hopefully some recognition.
Are there any particular authors or books that you feel have been a big influence on you?
My world view was changed by the also late and great Sir Terry Pratchett. I still hurt desperately at his loss. His Discworld series are a parody of our own world and are hilarious but also often very deep and meaningful. I read his books most nights as relaxation therapy. I read a lot of stories about dystopian worlds and magick and the paranormal. I got into these from urging by my now teenage daughter. I started with ‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins and have moved on to others. I love the ‘Twilight’ sagas and ‘The Host’ by Stephanie Meyer which are very well-written. The ‘Maze Runner’ series by James Dashner and the ‘Divergent ‘ series by Veronica Roth are other favourites. I also read books by Susan Kaye Quinn, Anna Carey, Lauren Oliver, Marie Lu and Alyson Noel. I try to read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ once a year. Reading takes me deep into other worlds where anything is possible.
What would you say has been the most difficult challenge to you in your writing?
Writer’s block is a very real problem. I’ve been getting that with my latest book for young adults. It usually means the whole idea is wrong, as it was with the original Spider story, but it’s starting to move again. I have dyspraxia so have difficulty with seeing related subjects. I’ll be writing and then realise that something can’t occur due to the facts that preceded it, but I don’t always see it straight away and have to go through the whole book making corrections. It’s very hard work and can be a bit demoralising. I’ll get people to read the story when it’s done to check for inconsistencies. It’s a lot easier to write for little kids as the stories are so simple, usually. It’s the illustrations that are hard, but incredibly fun. I close my eyes and picture a scene and then start scribbling, and invariably giggling! The characters come alive and are part of my family now.
How do you balance the rest of your life around your writing?
With a full-time job I have little time to write and draw, but try to squeeze them in when I can, often during my lunch break. I colour my illustrations in Photoshop which is very time-consuming so I tend do it at weekends. Oh, for some more time!
Do you have any special routines for writing?
Close my eyes, transport myself there and start writing. Then worry about mistakes and cleaning up later. That’s it! I’m a bit of a put-my-head-down-and -charge kind of writer!
What do you do when you are stuck?
I ask my daughter! She has a brilliant and creative brain. She’s often helped me when I’ve got stuck or I’m not sure about something and she has very good ideas.
How did you find the process of self-publishing? Would you recommend it to fellow writers?
I was told about CreateSpace by a publisher friend, Peter Kavanagh, who writes the lovely ‘Art Myatt’ children’s stories. I was very relieved and excited as I would have had to have spent £500 for a publishing company. CreateSpace is brilliant and pretty easy to use. They have the whole service set up very well, with lots of advice to hand. I would most certainly recommend them. You have to do your own self-promotion, though, and that takes time. But it’s fun.
So what’s next? You have your “I’m not…” series, but do you have any plans for other stories? Maybe for older children? Adults?
I am also writing a spooky novel for older children, ‘The Dreams of Lucy Lee’, which is proving very difficult and is on hold for the time being, until something occurs to me! I hope to get [The Dreams of Lucy Lee] finished as it’s preying on my mind! I hate leaving things unfinished. I hope the ‘I’m Not . . .’ series will continue until I run out of ideas. Suggestions welcome!
Is there anything you would do differently if you were starting out again now? What would you tell your younger self, just starting out with the advantage of hindsight?
Plan, plan, plan. It’s hard with a Specific Learning Difficulty but I would have told myself to keep trying. Get the main points of the start, main story and ending sorted out on paper, then fill in. It can be done with practice and I would have tried that when younger if I’d had a helping hand from a professional. Every school should have a writers’ club!
What advice would you give to any aspiring writers out there, especially those that might be wanting to write, but don’t think they can do it?
Write about a subject you love and know well. Don’t write about something because you feel you should or that others tell you should, and hate it. I produced a music book, ‘Diatonic Liaisons’, for the diatonic accordion, as I used to write special notation when teaching a friend and he suggested I write it. It’s been very successful but took about ten years to write and I hated every minute of it! But, to contradict myself, I’m glad it’s done. I would recommend writer’s groups. I’ve never been to one as would feel rather intimidated! But I should have done from the outset. I may well yet. Also, read lots of stories in the genre you’re working on and see how the successful ones are written, but don’t lose sight of your own style. See how long books are as in number of words/pages, although that’s just a guide as yours will be as long as it needs to be, just not too long or too short (except short stories which are a different kettle of fish and really fun!). Do get advice and send drafts to friends and family to ensure you’re on the right track and to correct spelling and grammar. Don’t be hurt by criticism. This is an essential part of your development as a writer. Test your limits and have fun. Be brave! It’s a wonderful journey and opens whole worlds, real and imagined. Oh, did I say plan, plan, plan?! And good luck to you all!
So, I hope you enjoyed learning about Alex and her writing and maybe even found a little inspiration?
Big thanks to Alex and good luck to her with her writing – and astronomy – clear skies and all that!
Amazon UK (as before, there are other sellers)
It has been a while since I wrote anything about the screenwriting books that I have enjoyed. Partly because I went for a period without reading any and partly because I had other things to write about. However, I felt the need to return to this semi-regular series of posts having read Stephen King’s “On Writing” this weekend, a book I have been meaning to read for a long time, but only just got around to doing so.
Before we go any further, you may well have noticed the “sort of” that I added to the title. This isn’t a screenwriting book per se, but it is a book aimed at writers; which we all are or hope to be. So, while King’s references and examples are largely taken from novels, a lot of the advice rings true, reflects and reiterates that which is offered by screenwriters.
I “grew up” (not literally) with Stephen King, first reading Christine and Carrie and was instantly drawn to his style of writing. It may not be “the most artful” style in the world but, most importantly, it drew this (soon to be Constant) reader into his world, filling my imagination in ways other books just didn’t. This style is repeated here. We may be in the world of memoir/text-book (?) as opposed to novel, but the words on the page feel familiar and inviting to anyone who has ever read King; it is certainly nowhere near as “stuffy” as some other writing texts I have read.
The first third of the book is reserved for a whirlwind tour through King’s childhood and development as a writer, while the rest of the book is dedicated to his views on what writing is and how it all works. He also explores the tools at your disposal as a writer and how they can help you do the best you possibly can. It is not presented as the be-all-and-end-all for writing or as a one-stop solution to writing a bestseller (as you may find in other works) but it is a review of King’s techniques and experiences, what works for him. His output from this system obviously speaks for itself!
Again, I don’t want this to become a review or detailed critique of the book, but I just wanted to highlight some of the gems I found inside that resonated with me. This is a fairly random selection – I didn’t to spoil everything!
So here goes…
Stephen King on writing:
On lessons learned from early writing:
…the realisation that stopping a piece of work just because it is hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.
As Scott Myers can often be heard saying, “The only way out is through.”
…it’s writing damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.
…use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colourful; and
…omit needless words, in action.
The second of these is vital advice… and advice I need to take as I can tend to be a little verbose at times.
Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. the trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.
For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.
and I particularly liked:
Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.
A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a what-if question…
King talks about how he develops ideas and stories, not necessarily focusing on PLOT, but exploring situations and how whole stories can explode from a simple situational set-up.
I think the best stories always end up being about people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.
On the Protagonist:
…no one is the ‘bad guy’ or the ‘best friend’ or the ‘whore with a heart of gold’ in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby.
This is a great way to look at characters and to help you understand their motivations. The Antagonist Perspective
On what to write:
Try any goddam thing you like , no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it.
Really, just get it down!
On finishing the first draft:
My advice is that you take a couple of days off – go fishing, go kayaking, do a jigsaw puzzle – and then go off an work on something else. How long you let your book rest …. is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of 6 weeks.
So, yeah, let it ferment for a while…
And that’s just a few, there are plenty more and the book is, for want of a better word, riddled with great insight on the process of writing – and we haven’t even touched on grammar or dialogue!
What struck me as particularly interesting was the similarities to many other sources of inspiration, especially the Pixar Rules I have talked about in the past. I’m not going to list all the similarities, but if you have a look through those rules, you will spot them yourselves. The fact that so many of these “rules” (yeah, I know, ‘tools not rules’) apply equally to King’s works of Horror novels and Pixar’s family-oriented cinema output speaks volumes to the importance of story regardless of what medium you use to convey it. King reiterates this throughout the book – the story is king (no pun intended) – so utilising the tools that he offers up means you are, at least, going to be heading in the right direction when you start writing your masterpiece, whether a short-story, novel, play, TV Series or screenplay.
Finally, I also found the book to be a massive inspiration to get writing again myself and try out some new ideas. It can be difficult to maintain the momentum sometimes, with everything that life can throw at you but, as King says, if you don’t get on and write you will never be a writer.
It has even reminded me how much I used to enjoy being a Constant Reader, so I am going back to fill the gaps in King’s works and, perhaps, re-read a few old favourites. With a Dark Tower film on the way, I feel the need to revisit Roland and his Ka-Tet.
I guess this has (sort of) turned into a review, but I do feel that “On Writing” is one of the best books on writing I have read. For its friendly, welcoming style, to the no nonsense advice from King, it is a book I would recommend to any fellow writer without hesitation.
While at work a few days ago (don’t tell the Boss) I was daydreaming about a script re-write I am working on when I came across the following tweet by Lucy V Hay highlighting advice from writer Julian Fellowes:
— Shouty Writing Tips (@Bang2write) 27 June 2016
(the full post is available HERE)
What caught my eye was Tip #7 which dismisses the expectation that all good characters must change over the course of their journey. Fellowes was more of the opinion that it is just as important to ensure the audience has empathy with your characters. This was timely as I am currently working on a script where the protagonist does not necessarily change that much during her story; she perhaps acts more as a catalyst for change among other characters. She changes a little, but not as drastically as many other movie characters who learn great lessons through the course of their arcs.
Now, change is a cornerstone of story-telling techniques as it informs the character arc, another common aspect of screenwriting teaching. Wikipedia describes it as:
“A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person, and during the story, things happen which gradually transforms him or her into a different sort of person.”
Character arc – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
and even more “respected” sources describe the importance of change:
“The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.”
Robert MCkee, “Story” (1999, p104).
“In a sense, stories are about change. And the measuring stick that tells us who succeeds and who doesn’t is seen in the ability to change. Good guys are those who willingly accept change and see it as a positive force. Bad guys are those who refuse to change, who curl up and die in their own juices, unable to move out of the rut their lives represent. To succeed in life is to be able to transform. That’s why it’s the basis of not only good storytelling but also of the world’s best known religions. Change is good because it represents re-birth, the promise of a fresh start.”
Blake Snyder, “Save the Cat” (2005, p136).
Which is exactly right – change makes for good-storytelling and fulfilling stories . The change in Michael Corleone in the Godfather (1972) is a perfect example of how a character can change. It might not be the most positive change, but he does change, and the audience is fascinated by this growth and how it affects the character and others around him. Want something more light-hearted? How about Lightning McQueen from Cars (2006)? He starts off pretty self-centred and selfish, but ends up changing through the course of the film, learning to slow down and be more considerate to those around him. Clearly more change. Indeed, grab a stone and throw it at the IMDB and you are very likely to hit a story that features interesting characters developed through change.
Despite this change, Michael and Lightning are two very different characters who also have something else in common; empathy. Regardless of what change they go through, audiences empathise with the characters. Even where that change is negative. We do so with Michael in the Godfather as he avenges his father and protects his family – a primal desire/urge within the vast majority of us.
However, what is also interesting about Cars is that Lightning’s change is catalysed by the characters around him. He gets to know the residents of Radiator Springs and their lifestyle and they affect him, helping him change. The characters around him don’t particularly change themselves (maybe Doc Hudson softens a little) but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less interesting. They all have a story and personality that creates empathy with the audience without the change that is considered vital.
So what’s going on here?
Well, perhaps characters DON’T have to go through change to lead an interesting story, as Julian Fellowes suggests. Perhaps interesting, empathetic characters are just as important, and they don’t have to change to generate an emotional connection with the audience. Put a character in a story that has conflict, that gives them a goal and a purpose that the audience can empathise with and you can still end up with an enjoyable and popular film.
Don’t believe me?
to name a few examples. The characters in these films don’t undergo any substantial change during their stories, but they are highly regarded and well-loved films. Why? Because of good characterisation, great conflict and drama, etc etc. Ripley doesn’t change during the film (apart from learning about xenomorphs VERY quickly) and starts and ends the story as a kick-ass, Nostromo crew member. When does James Bond EVER learn anything or change? Dumb and Dumber says it all – no learning here… move along please.
Interestingly, Forrest Gump is similar to the supporting cast in CARS in that the protagonist, Forrest, doesn’t change, but he does influence the people he touches throughout his life, helping them grow and change – think of Captain Dan!
This is a great revelation and another chance to “clarify” a screenwriting rule. While “change” is an important aspect of many films, it is just another Tool in our writing kit-bag, not the absolute Rule that many of us (myself included) learn about early in our careers and think we have to stick to. Characters can (and do) change, it’s a fact, we see it all the time. BUT, they don’t HAVE to change, there is just as much evidence for that. The common denominator, however, on both sides of the argument is strong, compelling and empathetic characters that an audience will get behind and root for.
So that gives us something to aim for.
How do you feel about character change as a Screenwriting Rule?
Have you ever written a story in which a character doesn’t change?
- Characters you Admire
- Know your Audience
- Conflict and Emotional Arc
- Know your Characters – part 1
- Know your Characters – part 2
Got around to The Revenant at the weekend; a pretty bleak and unforgiving tale of revenge based on the experiences of Frontiersman, Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a brutal watch and the historical accuracy is questionable (then again, who cares?) but it is a beautifully shot and acted film, well worth a viewing.
For over two and a half hours we follow Glass as he hunts down Fitzgerald, the chap who kills his son and leaves Glass alone in the wilderness to die from his bear-related injuries. Obviously he doesn’t die, but he faces one hell of an ordeal before finally facing down his nemesis against the backdrop of snowy mountains and an avalanche. The film ends with a close up of Glass’ face and the sound of him breathing as he watches his dead wife walk off into the snow. The screen goes black and we hear a few more breaths before the credits roll. There is debate on the internet about what all this means, whether Glass is alive or dead, but the thing I was thinking about was that final visual; Glass looking up the hill, after his wife and then turning to stare directly into the lens of the camera.
Now, this isn’t full on “breaking the fourth wall” as Glass doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the camera or audience. Again you can read endless debate about this online and what it all means. However, what it did for me, which is what breaking the fourth wall often does, is it dragged me even deeper into the film (if that was at all possible after the previous, intense 150 minutes) and into Glass’ soul, if you like. I’m not going to debate whether this was a “break” – I don’t really care – but it did heighten my connection to Glass, his story and the predicament he finds himself in at the end of the film – it made me almost an active participant, as opposed to the dumb-bystander I had been for the rest of the film.
And that is what breaking the fourth wall should do… what any screenwriting tool should do; enhance the story and the viewer’s experience. Thinking about how it can be used then got me thinking about one of my favourite examples.
*****MORE SPOILERS AHEAD*****
There are plenty of examples of films that have broken the fourth wall over the years. I’m not going to look at them all here, just Google “Films that break the fourth wall” and you’ll find them. I just wanted to concentrate on one of them, to show how effective the tool can be and, possibly, how devisive it can be as well.
I chose Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007), a remake (pretty much shot for shot) of his own 1997 film, also called Funny Games. I’m talking about the 2007 version as it is the one I have seen most recently and is fresher in my memory, but either will do if you want to watch it. It is, arguably, a lot more disturbing and hard-going than The Revenant and is, essentially, a home invasion story, where a couple and their son are terrorised in their own home by two sadistic teenage boys. For no apparent reason. It is brutal, with bursts of extreme violence and certainly doesn’t have a happy ending but, for me, what Haneke was doing was holding a mirror up to the audience and get them to explore what it is that keeps them watching an extremely violent film with a seemingly unjustifiable plot; it’s just violence for the sake of violence. Haneke himself described it as “pointless.”
The film breaks the fourth wall on more than one occasion with one of the teenagers repeatedly acknowledging the audience’s existence, through monologue and knowing winks. But one particular scene does this superbly, breaking the fourth wall and playing with audience expectations. Following the murder of their son and the imminent murder of her husband, Ann (Naomi Watts) grabs a shotgun and kills one of her attackers, giving the audience what it wants; the twist and fight back that will lead to a satisfying (for the audience) ending of revenge. But we don’t get that relief, as the surviving tormentor finds the TV remote and rewinds the film to before Ann grabs the shotgun. He restarts the film and this time makes sure she doesn’t get the gun.
It is a device that split audiences. I’ve spoken to people who hated it, and the film, largely because of that scene. I thought it worked perfectly. In a film that questions audiences and voyeuristic behaviour, it teases us with a glimpse of the ending we want to see and think we are owed (revenge) and then whips it back away from us, leaving us watching what is then simply a bleak, violent and ultimately pointless film. We can justify watching a violent film because we are waiting to see the good guys prevail, that’s our justification for sitting through the bad stuff. But Haneke highlights this to us when his characters break the fourth wall. Not only does it make us willing participants in the action on screen but it tells us things aren’t going to go the way we think. The two violent teenagers are in control and the rules have gone out of the window – so why do we keep watching?
It was interesting to me that the people I knew who watched it, disliked the film more because it screwed with their expectations of what was going to happen in this type of movie than they disliked the violence being perpetrated on innocent people. By breaking that wall, Haneke makes us complicit in the action and people didn’t like it. It made them uncomfortable (me included) and that is wonderful film-making. Films should make you feel something.
There are lots of other incidences and examples of this in films. I don’t have space to talk about them all, and they are all done for different purposes but, ultimately, they draw us into the action and make us a part of it. Whether that is a good thing (Ferris Bueller) or a bad thing (Funny Games) really depends on the film and the mirror it holds up to the audience.
As another tool at our disposal, I would think it is probably one for the experienced writer and one that should be used sparingly, to avoid lessening its impact. But, when it is used well, it can make a massive impact on your audience. Most audiences these days a pretty savvy and understand how movies work – any tool that we can deploy that changes this, subverts expectations and can help us take them by surprise, has to be a good thing.
Yeah, okay I’ll admit it, The Revenant doesn’t really break the fourth wall, but it was the trigger that made me want to write this post. I’ve never used the tool myself (although I have suggested it to a friend for one of their projects and have an idea for its use in one story I am working on) but I do recognise how it can work well and perhaps shouldn’t be dismissed as a gimic.
Have you ever broken the “fourth wall” in a story?
Do you think it is a useful tool or a pointless gimic?
For a last couple of months I have been enjoying the ITV Series Marcella starring Anna Friel and written by Hans Rosenfeldt, Marston Bloom, Mark Greig and Ben Harris. Hailed as a “Scandi-esque” drama, it promised an intriguing look into the world of tortured soul Marcella, returning to work as a detective after having some sort of break down relating to the loss of a child. She also suffers from blackouts during which she struggles to remember her actions.
So far so good.
The series finished this week after 8 episodes and while, on the whole, it was a well made (if sometimes confusing) drama, the season finale left the internet in uproar over the amount of unanswered questions in an obviously sequel-baiting ending. I am not one to get too upset when I don’t have everything explained to me; my favourite film is 2001, for Heaven’s sake and I am a big fan of Lost! However, what Lost did do for its audience (or at least for me, YMMV), is provide all the clues for its audience to piece together the jigsaw. Although the answers in Lost were not all neatly spelled out by the end of the finale, I believe there was enough information in there to help you piece together answers to any remaining question you might have.
Marcella didn’t quite do that for me and left me feeling a little flat. The internet (on the whole) seemed to be feeling entirely cheated.
Characters were introduced, did important stuff, and then disappeared. Mysteries were posed early on in the season and we never even came close to an answer. I am sure that, if Marcella makes it to a second season, we will get some answers to these questions, but I can understand why people would be angry and threatening not to continue watching if it does. (I’m ready to give it a go!)
For example, the series started with Marcella in a bath, confused and covered in blood and mud. That raised a big question that the audience were really going to want answered by the end of the series. We get a hint of how it may have come to pass, but there is nothing to tell us why it happened and what caused it. The first, and biggest, mystery of the series is left unanswered.
This got me thinking about how much we should tell our audiences to keep them interested in our stories and what we should disclose? Of course this will all depend on the story you are trying to tell. Different approaches give us a different take on withholding information. On one extreme you might have Lost, which did its best to keep us in the dark on as much as it could and, on the other, an episode of Columbo, for example, where we know who the killer is before the detective has even got out of bed. However, Lost, for me, was as much about the characters as it was the Island and information about the characters was drip fed to us from episode to episode, season to season, so we were having questions answered, even if we didn’t realise it. Even if we do know who the killer is, there is still mystery in each episode of Columbo because we don’t necessarily know why or exactly how, and we enjoy finding out at the same time as Columbo. In both cases there is a balance of knowledge and ignorance; enough knowledge to keep us happy but enough ignorance to keep us intrigued and to continue watching.
There needs to be a balance.
Judging by the reaction on the internet (which is probably a bad thing to do) I think a lot of people would have stopped watching Marcella if it had gone on for a few more episodes, because the ignorance as to what was going on was overpowering the knowledge we were being given; there were not enough answers to keep everyone happy. Mystery is really important in a story, we don’t want to know exactly who, how, why, where, when and what within the first few minutes of a film, but we do want answers and a skillful writer will manage the way key information is revealed throughout their story to keep the audience happy, but also intrigued. Drip feed me, but don’t keep me completely in the dark.
J.J. Abrams talks about the joy of mystery in this TED Talk from a few years back and discusses his Mystery Box and the intrigue generated by not knowing what is inside. One example he uses is Star Wars and how the plot involves numerous Mystery Boxes throughout the story, posing a question to the audience, which gets answered, but also replaced by another mystery box – a constant process of question and answer that keeps the audience hooked.
This is something I am consciously trying to take into account more when writing; thinking carefully about how I feed information to my audience and, perhaps more crucially, when I feed it to them. Get the balance right, give them enough to keep them invested in the story, but don’t leave them bored ten minutes in, with nothing to keep them guessing what might be in your Mystery Box. If we can do this, then I suspect we will more easily be able to hook our audience and keep them dangling on the line until the bitter (or happy) end even if we don’t answer all their questions.
How do you decide what to withhold and when to reveal?
Starting out, learning about screenwriting, you will find yourself encountering all sorts of guidance and rules that tell you THE best way to write a script or stress the importance of any of the many elements of scriptwriting.
Dialogue is something that I started off believing was THE most important components of a great script. While it definitely IS one important aspect of writing, is it right to think it is any more important than the other components such as Story, Character and/or Concept?
Everyone remembers and loves great dialogue and quotes from their favourite films. But do we remember those lines more because it is a favourite watched many times or because of the impact of the dialogue? Or maybe it is because the characters themselves are so memorable?
No-one forgets a great character.
Or a fantastic concept.
I got to thinking about this at the weekend after watching Mad Max: Fury Road with my Father-in-Law. It had been sitting waiting for ages on the Blu Ray player so we broke open the seal and popped it in after lunch on Sunday.
Two hours of great concept and great characters.
But not a lot of dialogue.
I think the majority of Max’s dialogue plays out in the first five minutes of the film. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure there is any really “memorable” dialogue in the film; it is definitely a more visual film. Although, perhaps, I will have to watch it again to double check 🙂
The characters are well written and realised on screen. Max and Furiosa exchange very few words, but the way they are portrayed and react to each other, and their situations, explains a lot more in a much more efficient way than simply flooding the audience with unnecessary dialogue.
Visually we are shown Imortan Joe’s world, the kind of guy he is, through scenes showing his control of water, crops and women and his reaction to Furiosa’s escape. The flip side of this shows us Furiosa’s character, her determination to get away and to protect her cargo. Max joins the fight with almost no dialogue, showing that, although he may be mad, Max still has human decency at his heart.
By their actions, we are drawn into those characters and empathise with them – all with the minimum of dialogue. Something silent films did for years.
Personally, I think this works better with actions, as opposed to just words.
If you get it wrong with dialogue, and/or use too much, then you risk losing your audience and the flow of the film, slowing it down… something Fury Road cannot be accused of.
Of course there are lots of other films out there that support the argument that dialogue is not the be all and end all of writing – in the same way there are hundreds that are reliant on heavy dialogue. From The Artist to The Social Network, dialogue has a place to play in every film, just in different ways. If you know your concept and your characters inside out, then the dialogue should be easier to find when you need it.
But don’t get bogged down if dialogue doesn’t come naturally to you (it will, eventually, it’s like anything you’re not good at – practice, practice practice) it’s just part of the process.
I struggle with dialogue myself, really struggle with it, so am working during my edits to develop my skills at writing and rewriting dialogue to reflect my characters as well as cutting it down to help the flow of the story.
So is dialogue THE most important aspects of screenwriting?
No, I don’t think so.
But it is ONE of many important components of screenwriting.
Screenwriting requires mastery of lots of elements, not just skill in one. Develop them all. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and a great concept may be ruined if executed with terrible dialogue and great dialogue might not be enough to save a script that contains weak characters.
So get writing and get practicing. Find yours and your characters’ voices and use their dialogue to bring your characters and concept to life and write the best damn story you can!
How do you use dialogue?
What tools do you use to develop dialogue?
Feel to comment below and share your thought on dialogue.
Well do we? Should we?
As I continue to work through my current rewrite, looking carefully at the importance of each scene, I am also searching for sections of scene description that could be reduced. One of the things that Lucy Hay mentions in this post about Revitalising your Scene Description is the “rule of halves” and cutting down unnecessary description. Why use 20 words when you can use 10? Why use 5 lines, when you can convey the same information in 2?
So I have been trying to cut out the superfluous ramblings and flowery language that is taking up white real-estate on my pages. One of the aims of this rewrite is to try and get my page count down below 100 (from 109) and, by being ruthless in this way, I have managed to get down to 103 pages by about a third of the way through. So it seems to be working.
But what am I talking about?
Simple stuff really.
For example, a passage can easily be reduced in terms of word count, but upped in terms of impact and flow. Take this example from the script I am rewriting. It conveys the scene perfectly well, so we know what is going on, but it is four lines long (my personal, absolute limit) and is a thick slab of words – in short, it is clunky:
Daniel attempts to throw a punch, but Keiron grabs
Daniel’s wrist with one hand and pulls a flick knife out
with the other. The blade is closed but held against
Daniel’s neck. He pushes Daniel back against the lockers.
But this easily becomes:
Daniel throws a punch.
He pins Daniel against the lockers, one hand on his throat, the other pulls a knife.
Punchier? More dramatic? Definitely conveys the same information.
I know which I prefer…
In the same way description can be superfluous, whole scenes can also present unnecessary words. I found two sequential scenes this morning that involved the protagonist and his father in the living room of their house. The father is asleep while his son phones his mother (who recently left) and then sneaks out of the room to phone his girlfriend on an extension upstairs.
This took a full page to describe. Not much space in the overall scheme of things, but every page counts. Besides, and to be honest, far too much of it is simply me, the writer, “telling” the audience what is happening; it doesn’t leave anything to their imagination.
As the son has already been given his mum’s number in an earlier scene and, a few scenes later, meets her, we can be safe to assume that he called her. Or she may have called him, we don’t know… but it really doesn’t matter who called who – the meeting is the important thing. The audience will make the leap, provided the “gap” in the telling isn’t too wide, leaving too much to the imagination.
This way, the scene in the living room becomes superfluous and gets cut, leaving just the second scene to play out. The second scene was just a convenient way to link to the next scene in his girlfriend’s bedroom where she (well, you’ll have to read the script to find that out….)… and they start a conversation. I am fairly certain I can probably cut out both scenes and jump straight to the girlfriend’s bedroom without losing the audience.
So more action has been cut because, if I am perfectly honest, it isn’t really action. It’s just dull description of events leading up to the action. I guess you can see it as “action” and “reaction” – if we can suggest the “action” and show the “reaction” our scripts can be cut down to much leaner lengths and the real action of the screenplay will flow more cleanly.
So, when you are in rewrite mode, think carefully about your description and scenes, do you need them? Do you need that level of description and “telling” the audience, or will it be more fun to “show” them what is happening.
Actions and Reactions….
Amazon UK (yet again, other booksellers are available)
ISBN-10: 0684856409 ISBN-13: 978-0684856407
Amazon UK (yeah, you know the rest)
ISBN-10: 1580650155 ISBN-13: 978-1580650151
Back to books…
I decided to look at these two together as they are kind of cut from the same cloth. Neither book is a conventional account of screenwriting from start to finish in the way that, perhaps McKee or Field are, and they are certainly lighter in tone and easier to read.
The books are both a collection of snippets of information, like a screenwriter’s FAQ list of hints and tips on how to write a screenplay and market your stories.
Jennifer Lerch’s 500 Ways to Beat the Hollywood Script Reader is exactly that, a run through of 500 nuggets of advice for writers who want to make sure their screenplay gets read, and gets past the Hollywood gatekeepers. Hollywood is the key word here and the book is largely written to reflect on screenplays with Hollywood as a target audience; commercial, high-concept, 3-ACT stories. To this end, the main section of the book (Book 2) runs from “Way” number 200 to “Way” number 477 and is split into 3 Acts that mirrors the issues you need to consider in each of those 3 Acts. Book 1 deals with developing characters, concepts and themes and is the second largest section from 1 to 200.
This is by no means a bad thing, just important to highlight that it might not be the right book for you if you are more interested in low-budget, independent film-making, or markets that are very different from Hollywood. As a general primer, though, it works well and I enjoyed the read. It is accessible and does not get bogged down with in-depth discussions of screenwriting paradigms or rules, but just fires out nugget after nugget of writing advice. You just take what you want from it.
In the introduction to “How Not to Write a Screenplay,” Denny Martin Flinn states that this book will not make you a great screenwriter, but he hopes that it will help you to NOT be a bad screenwriter. The book explores 101 common mistakes that screenwriters make and, while it is not numbered in the same way as “500 Ways…” it is split into many sections offering advice on dozens of aspects of screenwriting such as sluglines, settings, characters and dialogue.
Actually, the book could work as a companion to The Screenwriter’s Bible in that the biggest section, PART 1, deals with Form and Formatting; the real nuts and bolts of screenwriting that you need to know about. It takes a lot of similar rules discussed by Trottier in his bible and gives examples of mistakes that are commonly made and how to avoid making them. If you want a concise book that explores the use of parentheticals, montages or the much discussed “we-see,” then you are in the right place. You won’t get an in-depth discussion about any of this, but you will get helpful insight into the bare bones of screenwriting form.
Personally, I think I preferred Trottier’s book but that may be because I know it better than this book and it is my go to reference when I have a query about form. There isn’t much new in Flinn’s book if you are familiar with the Bible or have been writing for a while, but it is still a potentially useful addition to your screenwriting reference library!
They are both books that you can dip in and out of and don’t need to sit down and spend hours pouring over technicalities. I bit of light relief after some of the loftier tomes that are available to screenwriters.
If you have read them, or decide to, let me know what you think below.