Category Archives: Writing Rules
Well, it’s been a while. I’d like to say that I have been too busy writing to post anything on this website, but that would be a lie. I have been too busy but, unfortunately, it has not been because of writing. I have managed a bit here and there and, now I have set myself some new targets for the WRAC#17 challenge, I am back on track with a rewrite of a script I got some great feedback on last year.
Writing time is at a premium still, but I have generated that “buzz” you feel when you finally get a chance to sit down and put some words down in Final Draft and a new story begins to take shape. It’s almost like starting again and I find myself thinking about some of the old “rules” and “tools” of writing that can help when you find yourself stuck on a particular writing issue, or pondering a structural conundrum. And, as I am working on a family script, what better advice to seek out than that of the legendary PIXAR.
I love PIXAR’S Rules of Storytelling and ran a series of blog posts when I first started this webpage looking at the rules developed by Emma Coates and expanded on by Stephan Vladimir Bugaj. I think the time is right for a rerun (there is always time for a rerun) and, while it might seem like a bit of a cheat, I always enjoy exploring the rules. If this means I can introduce them to a few new people, then all the better!
If you fancy exploring the PIXAR rules, pop over to the Introduction page to find out a little more about them. I’ll be tweeting the rules over the next few weeks, but you can always explore the links to the various rules if you fancy skipping ahead!
So, sit back, click some links and enjoy the wisdom of PIXAR!
Back at the start of the year I wrote post that looked at the year ahead and set myself goals and measurable targets – something that is important if you want to keep yourself on track and keep the writing working for you. Having clear goals makes it easier to manage and achieve them, rather than having vague goals to “write a screenplay,” or “finish a novel,” which don’t really provide the focus you need to manage a long-term task, especially spread out over a year.
In relation to this planning I also talked about taking part in Gary Graham’s Writer Accountability (WRAC) initiative, whereby a group of writers have signed up to a series of self-set goals for the year ahead. Regular tweets/Facebook posts by co-host Michael Hennessy keep us all on our toes and ensure we regularly review those goals/milestones and keeping ourselves on track.
Well, that’s the theory. My main goals this year revolved around a novel I started writing in 2015 for NANoWriMo, with plans to have an outline and the first quarter written by now.
I did start. I do have the outline and I do have some written… just not as much as I was supposed to have. I do have what was written for NaNoWriMo, but I am reworking it as that effort was fairly meandering. It was a good way to get lots of words down on the page quickly, but I am not sure how good it was for me to keep focus/direction when writing.
The main problem is passion. I am passionate for the concept, but I am not sure I have really figured out the right direction for the novel and I am struggling to work up the enthusiasm to write it so, for now, it is probably time to call it a day.
It probably doesn’t help that I had some great feedback on a screenplay last year and am excited about getting back to that and, in fact, have started a page-1 re-write, giving serious thought the notes I received.
Or maybe it does help. Rather than continuing to flog a dead horse that my heart really isn’t in, it is obviously better to be working on a project I have more interest in. And in all honesty, if you are not enjoying a project, don’t keep at it – you will just ruin your enjoyment of the whole process. Stick the project in a drawer (it isn’t going anywhere) and you can always come back to it next week, next month, or even next year.
Taking a break isn’t the same as giving up. Never give up, just pick your fights.
I’ve lost my focus on one project, but that doesn’t mean I have lost direction, I just need to chose the right direction for me at this time.
Now I just need to beg forgiveness from Gary and Michael for failing my goals and see if I can update them for this year to focus more on my screenplay. Surely it’s not too late… 🙂
When do you decide it is time to move on?
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.
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?
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….
Just before Christmas I noticed a few posts on Twitter about a free screenwriting course that was being run by the University of East Anglia via the FutureLearn website, which has a variety of free courses available. I “ummed” and “ahhhed” about it for a long time, but eventually signed up in January. To be honest, what had I got to lose, other than a bit of time? And there is never anything wrong with a bit of learning. So I signed up, got access to the pre-course discussion and got ready for the course to kick-off a few weeks later.
I thought I would write up my experience of this course as it is running again in May. It might be of interest to other writers who like free things!
Led by Michael Lengsfield, the course is split over a number of modules that are spread across two weeks. However, you can access all of the articles, videos and discussion from the off.
Michael is supported on the course by Christabelle Dilks, Molly Naylor and Tom Benn who crop up in the various video discussions that form parts of the course. They are also on hand to offer comment and advice in the discussion attached to each section of the course.
The course elements cover subjects such as Cinematic Form, Structure, Acts, Developing Characters, Writing Scenes, Formatting and getting through that First Draft. Each section can be attacked in any order (although chronologically makes most sense) and can be checked off in your account to show you have completed it. You can also join in a discussion on each section if you so wish.
The course suggested 3 hours a week, but this can be more or less, depending on your current experience and how much time you want to put into reviewing the lessons and working on some of the tools and exercises. However, there is no pressure to do anything and it can all be undertaken at your own pace; you can do as much, or as little as you like. (Of course, the more you put in the more you should get out.)
Certificates are available, but these are charged for – you will need to decide for yourself whether you think you need a certificate from the course and a charge is understandable when you consider the course is free.
So is it any good?
Well, it certainly won’t do you any harm if you sign up and take part. How much benefit you get from it depends entirely on how much experience you have with screenplays and how much time you want to invest in the course.
If you are very experienced, then this might not be the course for you. Personally, I did find I had covered a lot of the content before, in other courses and texts. However, there were one of two things that I took away from the course that I think will be helpful. In addition to this, it is always informative and fascinating to get involved in writing discussion with other writers, and much can be learned from bouncing ideas and thoughts off each other in the discussion sections for each module.
If you are brand new to screenplays and want a nice introduction to what they are all about and an overview of format and structure, you could do a lot worse than sign up for this course. As I may have mentioned… it is free, so you don’t really have anything to lose and, if you are worried about the time commitment, I am now a couple of weeks after the end of my course, and I still have access to the materials.
Part of me feels that the course is also a bit of an advert for the full-time courses that are run by the University, but this is hardly surprising and there is no hard sell.
One aspect of the course that did annoy me was the discussion sections. As great as it is to have access to a forum to discuss what you have just learned, there was little structure to the discussion. The discussions are not organised in a typical forum style, but presented as simply a list of chronological comments on the subject in hand. Responses can be embedded, but the list of comments soon runs into the hundreds (sometimes thousands) so it is unlikely you will be able to take it all in. Some more structure to this might help people see more of the discussion they are interested in.
Having said that, it is possible to follow individuals who have generated interesting discussions and to filter their content, meaning you only see what you want to see. So it is not impossible to use, I just found it a bit clunky.
But, otherwise, as a free course, it was easy to sign up to, had a decent amount of information to help you on your way, was nicely presented and easy to use. As I have said, if you are starting out, or need a bit of inspiration, then this is a good course to cut your teeth on.
If you are an experienced writer, it may still be interesting, but may not further your knowledge to any great degree.
Check it out and let me know if you took part in February or are signing up for May. As with anything like this, if you want to do it, do it and, most importantly, have fun doing it!