Thursday, June 4, 2015

Book Review: Notes to Screenwriters

Angela Bourassa recently reviewed our book, Notes to Screenwriters on her site, LA Screenwriter.

Here's an excerpt:

"Writers, producers, and consultants Vicki Peterson and Barbara Nicolosi have a new addition for your shelf of screenwriting books. The book is called Notes to Screenwriters, and we think that it deserves a spot next to Save the Cat and Story.
With so many books on screenwriting, it must be a daunting task for writers to come up with something new to add to the writer’s curriculum. What Vicki and Barbara have done with this book is not try to replace or out-do the classics of screenwriting instruction. Instead, they’ve gathered together handy advice and wisdom from their years on both sides of the table.
Vicki and Barbara build each chapter around sets of related notes that screenwriters commonly receive on scripts – notes like “Not enough conflict” or “The characters weren’t active.” They then provide writers with practical advice for improving their writing and their approach to screenwriting as a business."

Thanks, Angela! Check out the rest of the article here:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Why Story Matters

For the last several years, there’s been much talk in Hollywood about the extinction of feature screenwriting. The spec market is dead. Digital platforms are on the rise. It’s widely known that most writing jobs are in television, not features. Even the ABC/Disney Fellowship Program, designed to discover new talent, has put their feature fellowship on hold because they can’t figure out how to yield the same kind of immediate career results that happen in their TV fellowship. Furthermore, nice, character-driven, middle of the road movies just don’t get made anymore. The market has become polarized, from the gigantic, spectacle-driven, sure-bet tent poles, to the teeny, one location, no risk, micro-budgets. In production offices, Directors of Development (if their job still exists) have shifted from shaping and crafting writers and their stories to locating a script that can be shot, as-is, with  certain tax incentives in mind. Hollywood seems to care less about a good story well told, and much more about what can be monetized RIGHT NOW.  

This kind of news can make a feature writer despair, and cause some to think that investing years into a craft that might never pay off just isn’t worth it. For most, it’s not.


No matter what current trend is selling in Hollywood, there will always be longing in the souls of men and women for great stories well told.  The craft of storytelling is immortal, and feature-length stories have been the medium for thousands of years.  There’s harmony found in a story whose length is designed to be long enough to explore a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, and short enough to take in at one sitting, without interruption.

Anyone who attempts to tell a story in any length, for any size screen, must learn feature screenwriting as a foundation to the craft. Even if they never go into the feature market, screenwriters need to study Aristotle’s Poetics and watch classic movies and understand three act structure in the same way that medical students need to study Latin.  Feature narratives are the root language of all screen storytelling. Without an understanding of features, screen stories in other formats will fall, uh, short.

Because of the rise of digital platforms, everyone seems to be watching this recent “change” in format closely and trying to figure out ways to be successful in delivering story content (i.e. reach more eyeballs) in a new way.  The flaw in this kind of thinking is that it presumes that stories change. Story does not change.
Instead of chasing current trends, we students of screenwriting need more of the classics. Everything that is great about a one minute short gone viral can be evidenced in any one of Aesop’s fables.

We need masters of feature writing to continue to teach the craft in the same way that we need masters of sculpture and poetry and charcoal drawings to teach theirs. Feature screenwriting is high art.  Creating delightful characters who make strong choices that further a complex, yet clear plot is high art. Building fantastic arenas which are integral to the story and delivering stunning visual imagery is high art. Doing this in a narrative format with a complex and satisfying beginning, middle and end is high art. Accomplishing this in a two-hour narrative format for the screen is the foundation of accomplishing this in any other medium. 

The business of Hollywood will always be about making money off of stuff people watch. The business of storytellers will always be about communicating truths that speak to souls. There will always be a tension between the two, but it is important to remember that Hollywood needs storytellers more than storytellers need Hollywood. Still, it is better to work together. Trends will shift.  Formats will change. Story will remain constant. 

If you agree that story matters, check out our book, Notes to Screenwriters.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Screenwriter's Prequel: Do You Have What It Takes?

The Screenwriter's Prequel deadline is coming up on June 1st, and applications are rolling in. You can learn more about the program here.

Are you trying to determine if the Prequel is the right fit for you? Want to know more about what it takes to be a professional screenwriter? Here are some questions to consider:

Do you feel compelled to write? Notice I didn't ask, Do you love to write? Many writers I know don't love it on a daily basis, including me. As soon as I get settled into my writing time on some days, I'd rather play another round of Candy Crush, right after a good nap. Well, most days. Okay fine, every day. However, there is a small, sometimes not so quiet, voice that urges me to get to it. Writing is on my to-do list every day, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I check it off the list. If you're already writing, great. You get a sticker. If you love writing all the time, great. You get two stickers and a sideways glance from me wondering if you're a Stepford robot. If you've "always wanted to write" but never been able to get yourself together to actually do it, sorry. We can't help you. We don't carry any magical pixie dust that will automatically force you to sit down at your computer. If you're somewhere in between and just need a boost, a reason, or even just permission to do make writing a greater priority in your life, we can come alongside and offer plenty of motivation.

Do you love having written? So do I. That's why I force myself to do it when I'd rather nap. The reward of having written is what keeps me going when the writing itself feels more like punishment. If you can relate, you are a writer.

Are you willing to learn something new? I went to a holistic doctor recently and she mentioned that one of the most important questions she asks her patients is, "Are you willing to be well?" She says there are many people who are sick simply because some part of them is not willing to participate in the healing process. I think it is the same with screenwriters and coaches. Writers who are open to learning will break through the mental blocks that keep them from growing and achieving success. If you believe you can never be a master of this craft, only a student, then you will go far.

Do you have something to say? Writers are prophetic voices for the masses. An emerging writer may not be able to articulate exactly what it is she wants to say, but she recognizes that it is important, and it has the potential to help others. The bulk of our work mentoring writers is to help them identify and strengthen their voice. However, we can't help you if you think stories shouldn't have something to say.

Do you want to write professionally for the screen? Notice we haven't mentioned any cliches that people typically associate with a Hollywood-based screenwriting program, including how old you need to be, what genres are selling, or how hungry you are to win, win, win. We'd rather you not focus on those things because they tend to become distractions from doing the greater work. That said, the Screenwriter's Prequel faculty are chock-full of wisdom about the need to write content that also succeeds in the marketplace. If you want to make grandiose art that pleases no audience but yourself, knock yourself out- by yourself. If you want to create something of quality intended for a specific audience that has the real possibility of being seen, we can guide you through those steps, and help you lay out a specific plan to get it in front of the right people.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Notes On Adapting a Book Into a Screenplay

The practical and ethical problems of adaptation:

a)     How does form (including genre and convention) influence content and vice versa in the adaptation process?  That is, in changing a story to another storytelling form, what information needs to be lost as no longer deliverable?  What kind of new information can be added because of new possibilities in the adopted form?

b)    How much fidelity does the adapter owe the original text?  More than just meeting the expectations of a project's fan base,  how much adherence does the adapter owe to the original writer's values and intentions?  As the creator of a character, does the original author have any claim on the choices that character can be made to make in future adaptations?  Can the adaptor just do anything with the characters and story?

Any writer setting out to adapt a book to the screen or stage needs to  spend a bit of time brooding over the limits and possibilities of each respective art form as narrative mechanisms.  What conventions are appropriate to a novel but completely impossible on the stage?  How does a screen narrative bring more control of the viewer's focus than is possible on stage?  What does sound and image add to the experience of a story impossible in a book?

Main differences between books and movies:

1)     In a movie, all action is present tense (even flashbacks have to be placed in a present context)
2)    Movie characters' inner lives must mainly be shown through actions.  There is no other convincing access to their thoughts (including their dialogue).
3)    Visual storytelling has budget constraints which is not true of prose narrative – anything is possible in a book.
4)  Books can pleasantly meander.  Movies need to come in under two hours.
5)  Book story structure is very much free form.  Movies generally need to be structured in three acts.
6)  Movie storytelling involves utilizing sound, intercutting and composition.

An adaptation can take...
A)    A good book and turn it into a lousy film   (Wise Blood, Lovely Bones, Scarlet Letter, Brothers Karamazov, Simon Birch, Brideshead Revisited)
B)    A lousy book and turn it into a great film  (Dr. Zhivago, Giant, The Godfather, Jaws)
C)    A good book and turn it into a good film  (GWTW, Color Purple, Precious, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Diary of a Country Priest)

What makes the difference is the commitment of the adaptor to the cinematic project.  The needs of the project AS A MOVIE must be paramount in the adaptor's conscioussness.

Optioning Source Material

Don't start working on any adaptation until you have completely secured the rights to the material. The first task is to figure out who is the holder of the screen rights (generally the publisher or original author).  If the material is seventy-five years or older, chances are it is in the public domain.  But you should still check.  

The next step is obtaining what is called "an option." An option gives you the exclusive right to adapt and seek to produce a screen story based on the previously published work.  Options can be for any length of time, but we recommend at least a year. Basically, with an option you can get your script written, and look for production partners or financing, or try and sell the screenplay, without having to worry about someone else taking it out from underneath you or simply working on it alongside of your efforts.  The option also prevents you from being sued for copyright violations.  There are lots of things to consider before entering into an option agreement.  Check out this book for more specifics.

Stages of Adapting a Book to the Screen

1)    Get the rights.
2)    Master the book.  Make a list of the most memorable A) Moments; B)  Lines of Dialogue; C)  Arenas; D) Other distinctive details
3)     Identify the sweep of the story and why it works – or why it doesn’t
4)     Be able to articulate the book’s several themes
5)     Choose a structure and point of view which may or may not be the same as the ones used in the source material.

Random thoughts about adaptation....

-  If you are adapting a novel or memoir that is reliant on a first person point of view, the  internal monologue of the narrator's voice is the first thing to go. Movies are not as intimate or introspective as books. You can try to preserve the first person perspective through a limited voice over, but it is going to recede to be mainly for subtext.  The story needs to play out visually in a movie.

- A great adaptation should fix problems in the original source material.  The writer needs to be reconciled to that.

- One technique is to read the book, set it for a bit, and then write an outline of the main beats that have left a residual impression.  Your task is to recreate the most memorable parts of the novel, and what you remember best could be a good indicator of those key aspects.  Generally, everything off the main through−line or not essential to the major sub−plot has to go.

- The biggest difference between a movie and the book on which it is based comes down to sheer quantity.  A movie can be thought of as nine to twelve, ten minute sequences.  A book can have scores of scenes and sequences.  The screenwriter has to choose the most cinematic scenes and the key beats.  The experience of a movie is never going to feel satisfying to a diehard fan of the book.  It is probably easier if the screenwriter ISN'T a diehard fan of the book because the necessary omissions will be easier.

You can't say the same thing with a moving picture as you can with a 
book, any more than you can express with paint what you can with 
plaster. - William Faulkner

“The great mystery of adaptation is that true fidelity can only be achieved through lavish promiscuity”—David Hare

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Notes to Screenwriters" in the News

Here's a new interview with Barbara and Vicki about our book and the current crisis in storytelling. Thanks to the Azusa Pacific University magazine for spreading the word!

Here's a snip...

What are the biggest challenges the movie industry faces in terms of storytelling?
Nicolosi: The system of movie creation is broken, which makes good storytelling difficult or impossible. Today, movies are not stories, but a product. So many people at the table try to change the story and these alterations have everything to do with selling it as a product—marketing the product, making the product more global – and nothing about whether it works as a story. Generally, we moderns lack detailed, focused, rigorous labor in all of the arts. Storytelling is suffering from this too. Our book says the way to move forward is to look backward. Look at what Aristotle said about story and what Aesop did and try to bring those principles into the modern era.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Interview by Lisa England

We met recently with Lisa England, an accomplished writer and former mentee, who interviewed us about Notes to Screenwriters for her blog.

Read the interview here: 

Thanks for the interview, Lisa! You inspire us, too.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Film Courage 'Notes to Screenwriters' Full Video Interview

A couple months ago we sat down with the producers of Film Courage to talk about our book, Notes to Screenwriters. The whole 70 minute interview is here:

Thanks, Film Courage! We enjoyed talking with you.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Seven Reasons Why You Need A Writers Retreat

1. You're a writer.

2. You need space to create.

3. Beauty awakens creativity.

4. Rest awakens creativity.

5. Travel awakens creativity.

6.  The company of other writers sharpens you.

7. Your writing will thank you.

Looking for a retreat? Check out our Notes to Screenwriters Cruise to Alaska! We sail May 18th.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Screenwriter's Prequel

If writing for the screen is what you want to do, this is where you need to be this August 1st.


  • What are the basic skill sets of screenwriting?  How do your skills rate?
  • What is your writing process?  How can it be more productive?
  • What are the essential elements of a story?  What makes a story cinematic?
  • What makes a story matter?  What makes it unforgettable?
  • Do you have a feature idea? A short? A teleplay? A web series?
  • How do you make a character better than the real?
  • How can you make the audience care about your character?
  • How is formatting a screenplay an art and a science?
  • What is the right structure to support your plot? To highlight your theme?
  • How do you find and work with writing partners, producers, investors?
  • (Extra for writing teachers) How do you develop a syllabus for an effective screenwriting program?
Each writer will have the opportunity for an introductory and exit interview in which we tailor particular help according to their career hopes and plans. We will help each draft a “What Comes Next?” plan for after the program.
Post-Workshop Mentoring: Writers who complete the eight-day workshop will have the opportunity to contract with Catharsis at a special rate to continue a mentoring phase on a project or projects for the next ten months. Mentoring will consist of monthly page number targets for the writer and feedback from Catharsis on the student’s work. Writers will complete two projects during their mentoring period: either a short film and a feature or two TV projects; We will also consider proposals for web series.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The One Thing You Need To Be A Screenwriter

There is really only one thing that you need to be a successful screenwriter. Drive.

I don't mean the cheesy, Hollywood-stereotyped, cocaine-laced, Alpha-person, short-fused, high burnout, megalomaniac version of Drive. That's the mask of ego that can only be worn so long before a person self-destructs. The Drive you need is a slow, steady burn. Drive is what keeps you writing long after the fickle Muse leaves you for someone else. Drive is the still, quiet voice in your soul that whispers, in spite of all circumstances, "Keep going."

Lots of people start screenwriting projects, but very few finish them. Many screenwriters loathe and fear the inevitable rejection that comes with the territory of being a writer, but in fact, it's not the rejection of others that stall out most screenwriting careers. Most screenwriters don't even make it far enough to send work out to be rejected. The greatest threat to a screenwriter's career is abandoning one's own project. Many writers simply give up. Many writers lack Drive.

Drive means that if you have an opportunity to learn or grow in your craft, you do it. You don't wait. You don't second guess it. You don't hope that some profound ability will manifest via osmosis or magic without training and practice. If you have Drive, you know that you must constantly invest in your education.

Drive means you write. You write when you don't feel like writing. You write when you know it's not working. You write when you don't have time to write.

Drive means you are in motion. You take steps (like writing) every day to further your goals. As the metaphor goes, you may not see far down the path, but so long as you put one foot in front of the other, you will go somewhere.

Drive means that you take charge of your own life. You don't blame circumstances for getting in the way of your goals. Drive means you work with the challenges you have. You find a way to make it work in addition to your other life responsibilities.

All writers have productive days and not-so productive days. Even the best succumb to what Steven Pressfield describes in his book, The War of Art, "The Resistance." The difference for writers who have Drive is they know that one unproductive day is just one lost battle. Drive means they are still winning the war. Drive is an accumulation of grace. So keep going. And when you're tired, keep going. And when you doubt you can go any farther, keep going. And when you feel like quitting, keep going. Just keep going.

Write What YOUR SOUL Knows

What does it mean, “Write what you know”? I come from an Italian-French family. I worked in a fish market in RI for a Mormon minister fisherman. I lived in the servants quarters of the Marble House in Newport. I have worked in Hollywood for twenty years. I have a family member who is an alcoholic. Does that oft-used exhortation to writers mean that I can only write characters whose lives dovetail with mine?  Wouldn't it be like saying that a doctor can only cure cancer if he first had cancer?

The expression, "Write what you know," first means, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. "Write What You Know" refers to the part of the writer's task that precedes the actual writing. On this level, editors and producers have a right to bemoan those writers who literally aren't filling their place at the table. The writer’s job is to do the research. It is to fill out a new world, or to add fresh details to a world we thought we knew so that we now see it in depth. 

Research is always doable. It helps me to set a script in Newport, RI because I have already done the research by my life experience. But part of the crafting of a screenplay is to enter into new worlds through research and make them tangible for the reader/viewer. Don’t set a script in a scuba diving school near the Great Barrier Reef unless you have done your research in the kind of people who become divers, intricacies of scuba gear, diving education approaches, ways divers die, how cool the underwater thing is, Australians, and the Great Barrier Reef. So, the first sense of "Write what you know" is WRITE WHAT YOU HAVE COME TO KNOW ABOUT.

But editors and producers and readers mean more than this too. "Write what you know" is an appeal for you to basically write what your soul knows. I was tempted to say “heart” here, particularly because it sounds warmer and fuzzier to say, “Write What Your Heart Knows,” but I mean more than just your emotions. Animals have emotions. Your soul, in the classical sense, is where your intellect, will and desires reside. Your soul is the place where your essential humanity is. Write from that place. It is where you brood from – as opposed to just reason. It’s where you dream from. It’s where you suffer from. It’s where you feel remorse from. It is where you choose from. It is where you love from. It is where you pray from. If you write from that place, then you are speaking soul to soul with your reader. And hence, what you produce will transcend mere demographics.  

A great writer doen't write to “young adults” but to “young souls.” Not to aging Boomers, but to weathered souls.  Not to children but to “baby human souls.” Speak to their fundamental condition not to their particular situation. What is it they yearn for? If you write to kids as if they are yearning mainly for the newest skinny jeans, or the latest iPod, you are dehumanizing them and they will disdain you. Rightly so. These are not truly the things for which a human soul yearns.  They are the manifestation of that deeper yearning.

You speak to human souls through beauty. Using words to achieve wholeness, harmony and radiance is the primary task of the writer. We have to remind ourselves over and over, with Dostoevsky, that it is beauty that will save the world. Not cleverness. Not cuteness. Not the mere witness to social justice. 

The philosopher Etienne Gilson says that beauty is in more than just wholeness, harmony and radiance. He says there is also style, originality and universality. Style has to do with talent. Originality has to do with a new thought. Universality has to do with the fact that it speaks to thoughtful people beyond their time or culture. Don’t write a jealous character until you have something unique to say about jealousy. Or at least, a fresh way of showing us how it looks when it is asking for the salt shaker at dinner. Don’t write about the power of art. Write about the way the purple paint feels on the fingers of the three year old as she smears it with wonder across the new white carpet in the living room. Don’t write about heartbreak until you have something profound to say about heartbreak. Or at least, how it looks on Joe’s seven year old face the first time his best friend, Mike, opts to throw the ball to Matt the fourth grader instead of Joe.

If there is anything that is clear, it’s that writing is more than any other art form, an attempt to communicate in an articulate way. The sole color on the pallet of the writer is words. Great writing moves immediately from being a rambling monologue, and becomes a dialogue with the reader’s heart and mind. The pictures you create with your words get matched to the reader’s memory and imagination, and he or she begins to edit and highlight and fill-out what you offer from his or her own experience. This happens more or less according to whatever level of history the reader brings to your work. When your experience connects with the viewer's experience they feel a wave of delight - part of which is the sudden comfort of knowing they aren't alone. But this can't happen unless you are really recreating what your sol has learned first.

Great writing is basically just great communication, great communication means you are speaking to the receiver’s humanity, not to their particular moment. Flannery O’Connor was great because she mastered the art of writing from the inside of her readers. She was very conscious of human psychology and the dynamic process that a reader goes on in a story. She wasn’t thinking about writing for Southerners, or for academics, or even for Christians or unbelievers. She was writing to any one who was engaged in the activity of dodging moments of grace. Basically all of us.  Write about the way you dodge your moments of grace.  That will have an authority that will speak to the reader soul to soul and make your work fascinating and healing for them.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Good Visual Image is Worth a Thousand Words

Poetry is the most respectful of art forms.  The whole reason for a poem is the acknowledgment that reality is too complex and mysterious to be reduced to the limits of wordy definitions.  Poetry searches for metaphors to reveal facets of reality by likening them to other things.  In the famous poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe, we laugh to hear that an elephant is alternately like a wall, and then, like a spear, and then like a snake, and a tree, a fan and a rope.  The poem assures us that an elephant isn’t any of those things, but is something like all of them.

Poetry is also eminently respectful of the reader, because it has to have faith in his or her intelligence, sensitivity and imagination – an act of faith basically in the reader’s humanity – to succeed.  The poet is a riddler who crafts a puzzle for the visual imagination and hopes that someone will be enticed to go through the difficult process of unraveling it.  If they do, the labor they have expended will make the solution valuable to them.  You know what I mean if you have ever been driving along on a country road, and then suddenly understood what Emily Dickinson meant when she wrote,
                                     I had been hungry all the years-
My noon had come, to dine-
I, trembling, drew the table near
And touched the curious wine.
Suddenly, as C.S. Lewis said about the purpose of literature, you know you’re not alone.

So what happened to us?  Why is so much contemporary art and literature banal and lacking in meaty metaphors?  Why do our works not only not cause the world to brood, but leave them feeling unsatisfied and even resentful for the time they spent with us?  Along with the general lack of artistic rigor that characterizes so much of contemporary artistic efforts, part of the problem is that so little work today has any powerful lyrical imagery.  All of art is basically metaphor, but the most evocative and resonant art offers metaphors not only in the general, but as the key to the deepest meanings meant to be communicated from artist to audience.By leaving out metaphor, we separate ourselves from storytellers like Homer and Dante and Hawthorne and Poe, all of whom were masters of visual paradox.  My sense is that many contemporary writers couldn’t even say what a lyrical image is or why it is important in a story. 

At it’s basic level, a lyrical image is sacramental in a story, giving the reader something to see in their mind’s eye that points to hidden realities. Imagery should come into play particularly to get an audience to brood over a project’s theme, but also can be very helpful in making a character’s motivations and choices more resonant.

The primary virtue of a metaphor is that it is clearer than the underlying truth you are trying to explicate.  

The second necessary quality of a metaphor is that it applies. As Naval scholar Alfred Thayer Mahan noted in his work of training officers, "A great leader is the one who knows all the principles from history and then knows in the situation before him, that a principle applies when it applies and doesn't apply when it doesn't apply."  It's the same with a great artist.  

The third quality of a metaphor is that it provides the emotional resonance that is harder to access in the simple unaided truth.  Consider the most famous allegory in philosophical literature, Plato's Cave.  

Plato could have simply said that the movement from double ignorance to wisdom necessitates many bracing shocks along the way as one is wrenched out of one's comfort zone, stripped of illusion and slowly is able to encounter reality.  But that statement washes over most hearers without any urgency and makes no connection to the life of most heaers.  But tell people that they are prisoners in a cave chained and deceived.  Tell them that they experience terror when the light first strikes their darkened eyes and that they have to be dragged forcibly out of the place in which hey feel safe.  Tell them that that moving from blindness to sight is a slow process but that finally the presence and light of the sun will become their dearest and most cherished gift.  There is energy and passion and fascination and attraction in the metaphor that the simple truth lacks.

In her story Good Country People, the great one, Flannery O’Connor, created a character who was a PhD with a wooden leg. O'Connor wrote about the device to highlight an important aspect of utilizing metaphor in narrative writing.
“She (the character, Hulga) believes in nothing but her own belief in nothing, and we perceive that there is a wooden part of her soul that corresponds to her wooden leg. Now of course this is never stated. The fiction writer states as little as possible. The reader makes this connection from things he is shown. He may not even know that he makes the connection, but the connection is there nevertheless and it has its effect on him.” (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners)

The truth is, it is easier to tell people what you think, then to entice them to think on something, which is what a good visual image does.  Coming up with a good visual image for a story requires a double portion of the intelligence, sensitivity and imagination that a reader will need to unravel it. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Screenwriting Grammar Matters

Somebody wrote us recently that their project got rejected in Hollywood for improper formatting. The writer was irate that such a small thing would be used to reject his script. Here, for the general edification was my response....

I wanted to express a brief defense on behalf of those of us who are sticklers about screenwriting grammar, aka formatting. Considered under a professional lens, formatting is not irrelevant. In the vast majority of projects, a correctly formatted page equals one minute of time on the screen. The margins for dialogue are shorter and allow for the actors to add expression. The longer margins allow the audience to get a good enough look at whatever is being described. Beyond timing, capitalizations are signposts to casting agents, line producers, directors and DP's for all their respective tasks. 

The best way to consider a screenplay is like unto an architectural drawing. People outside the profession do not appreciate all the industry standard norms for drawing, and would probably dismiss them. But they have their uses. Essential uses from a professional standpoint. 

People who haven't learned the industry standard for formatting are better off writing their story in a straight narrative fashion, as in a treatment. There are some expectations for a treatment, but few people in the business will quibble over them.   

So, yes, if you are going to write screenplays, do shovel over the cash and buy Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter, or Scriptware.  It's like buying a ruler for an architect. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Kindness and Corsets: The Spectacle of Cinderella

My seven year old daughter loves princesses, and I was inevitably one of the contributors to Mr. Mouse's $70 million box office haul last weekend. There's a lot to like about this adaptation. It's a solid story, supported by gorgeous production design, and absolutely stunning costumes. Oh dear Lord, the costumes. Amazing. They are currently on display at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, and they are even more impressive in person up close. It's worth the second mortgage to see this show at the El Capitan, by the way. Especially if you take a seven year old in a princess dress.

The spectacle in Cinderella is, well, spectacular. It is truly a feast for the eyes. However, the reason the spectacle works so well is because it has a solid story to hang on.

It has been said that every story is either The Odyssey or Cinderella, so it's not surprising that the audience has certain expectations for the plot. We know what happens. The way it happens in this adaptation is so satisfying, you might find yourself sporting a perma-grin while sitting in a dark theater staring at the screen. Disney's animated Cinderella is more famous than the original fairy tale it was based on by Charles Perrault. It is a tall order to offer a new, fresh take on the world's most well-known fairy tale and also improve upon it. But they did. For starters, they made Cinderella a more active character. Instead of passively letting her step family take advantage of her, Cinderella makes an active choice and compelling reason to stay in spite of her challenges. She is not a victim. She takes ownership of her values, kindness and courage, which cause her to make decisions that are difficult and heroic. Kindness is Cinderella's superpower. Because of her values, she brings nobility and honor to her suffering.

Granted, the message of the story, "Have courage and be kind," is hammered into the audience and repeated about seventeen times too many, but I almost never find this sort of thing to be the fault of the writer. It was probably some studio note to make it so obvious that everyone over the age of five wants to yell at the screen, "Come on! I get it already!" Even so, it's forgivable, because it works. Guess what message my daughter walked away with. Kindness wins. As a parent and as a storyteller, this message is a welcome and refreshing change from most kid stories, which usually amount to something cliche and banal, like, "Just be yourself," or, "Just try." I don't need my kid to go to the movies to learn to just be herself. I want my kid to aspire to be someone slightly better than herself. I want her to choose to stick to her values in the face of adversity.

In addition to being integral to the theme, kindness is also the spectacle of the story. In a plot that offers almost no surprises, kindness is the lynchpin which causes the reactions, moves the story forward, and creates the moments which become so visually powerful. In our book, Notes to Screenwriters, we describe spectacle as being the servant to all the other elements of story: plot, character, theme, dialogue and tone. The reason Cinderella works is because it's not just about pretty dresses. It works because it offers a complete story.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

So you think you have an idea for a movie?

      I got another one last night. A person who heard me give a speech sent me a message asking me to evaluate his life story as a good spine for a movie. We folks in the movie business get this kind of message a lot. As a rule, people have absolutely no idea how big and developed an idea needs to be to become fodder for the entertainment industry to start tossing it around. Below is a two-pager I worked up for my undergrads, basically as a guideline for their final project for me in my Story and Character class. From now on, when somebody writes me that they have a "good idea for a movie" I am going to ask them to complete this sheet - which I am estimating will come in at between 8-12 pages.

Movie Proposal Format

PROPOSED PROJECT TITLE:  How does this title give a sense of your theme, genre and character?

LOGLINE:  One sentence that sums up what this movie is about.

SHORT PITCH:  In one paragraph, sell this story to me.  The following information should be included in a breezy, well-written style.
-  What is the genre of this piece? How would you classify its style and tone?
-  Where does it take place and in what time period?
-  What is the scope of the movie (ie.  Epic studio movie?  Quirky indie film? Etc.) and who will be its primary audience?
-  What will make people want to see this movie?  How will it be fun/entertaining for the audience?  (Think something to learn, something to feel, something to dream about.  Think universal truth and spectacle.)

MOVIE THEME:  State in one artfully-written, arguable sentence the main theme of this project.  You can also include lesser themes in other sentences.

ARENA:  Describe the unique and visual world through which we will travel in this movie.  What will this movie look like on the screen?  How will the visuals help set the tone and the theme?  If it is a standard location (ie. courtroom, bar, restaurant, living room, office), describe how we will see this standard location in a new way in the movie.

MAIN CHARACTER PROFILES:  This section should be at least three pages.  It should include everything about your main two or three characters that Aristotle and McKee - and um, me - says  goes into a good character (not necessarily in this order), including:
-  Characterization (how old?  How smart/educated/articulate?  How rich or poor?Where she lives?  How he looks – his personal style and quirks.  Give me a thorough sense of the way this character is going to look and handle herself on screen.)
-  Character (What is his genius?  Her charm? Why will audiences be drawn to him?  What are his values and how did he find them?  What would she say she needs most?  What stands in his way?)
-  What are the main conflicts in her life?  What are some of the deep paradoxes in her life?
-  Who or what is his support system?
-  What is her transformational arc in the movie?  What leads up to his moment of grace and does he accept it or not?  How is she irrevocably changed at the end of the movie?  How is his ending a new beginning?

SUPPORTING CHARACTER PROFILES:  Write at least a paragraph for each of the other principal characters in the piece.  Give details of their character and characterizations and indicate what transformational arc they will travel in the story.

STORY SYNOPSIS:  Divide the main action of the story into acts.  This section should be at least five pages. 
                  ACT ONE:  Take us through the main action of the first half hour of this movie.  Include the way the main character is introduced. Include how you are going to introduce your theme and any visual imagery you will be using.  Hook us by indicating the entertaining spectacle that the audience will enjoy in the story.  Then, take us through the inciting incident that draws the character into launching the journey of the story by making a choice.  Describe the various kinds of conflict that stand in the character’s way.Introduce supporting characters and subplots.  End with a high stakes, visual action/choice that puts the character in a new dilemma.
                 ACT TWO:  Take us through the next hour of the film.  How does the character’s situation become more complicated?  What actions does the character take which drive the story?  What changes do we start to see in the arena?  Where is the character and his personal relationships in Act Three? What is it that heightens the stakes and suspense?  What will continue to make this entertaining for the audience?  What is the main reversal that comes at the mid-point?  At the end of Act Two, how is the character’s situation as bad as it can be?  What is the test that you have set up for the third act?
                ACT THREE:  Take us through the main action of the third act.  What does the character do in the third act?  What are the remaining sources of conflict and how does the character engage them?  Where is the character in his relationship in Act Three?  How does the character’s genius come into play in getting to the resolution of the story?  How does the character “die” so as to live?  How is the arena changed at the end of the story?  What is the new beginning at the end?