Screenwriters should learn from Shakespeare: Language governs the action

There is no doubt that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet continues to be one of the most intriguing and highly analyzed plays ever written, and the protagonist Hamlet is arguably one of the greatest dramatic characters ever created. From the moment this disconsolate prince enters the scene the audience/reader is made acutely aware of his conflicted soul. This tragic hero is a walking dichotomy that provokes every sort of human emotion, and th-2

sets the stage for the revengeful plot to be carried out. Shakespeare uses the power of language to not only control the plot, but also to establish the storyline, reveal Hamlet’s varied complex character flaws, control fate, establish irony, and to govern the action of the play. Shakespeare brilliantly uses this character to hold the weight of the play with his dialogue, and reveal a vivid display of universal conflict within humanity.

Hamlet’s distress over his fathers death, his mother’s new-found marriage, and obvious distrust of the King are revealed with his entrance in Act 1, Scene 2 as he discourses with the Queen, his mother. However, his comment to the King is most insightful, when he reveals his suspicion and distrust. This comment reveals a lot, because Hamlet is not only displeased with his mother’s choice to marry so quickly after his father’s death, but it discloses Hamlet’s fermenting resentment.

King. Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine,

And thy best graces spend it at thy will!

Hamlet. [Aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind. (1.1.62-65)

Perhaps one of the most dramatically revealing moments in Hamlet is with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be.” Shakespeare introduces this during the middle of the play in Act 111, Scene 1. This moving and powerful monologue alerts the audience/reader that something grim is about to happen, as Hamlet uncovers his “sea of troubles.”

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Hamlet. To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?—To die,—to sleep,—
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die,—to sleep;—
To sleep: perchance to dream:—ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,—
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,—puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. (111.1.56-88)

Hamlet moves into a very dark, contemplative state, and exposes the flaws in his thinking, his conflicting views on death and nobility, his possible fate, and the recognition that he will have to do something about his own personal conflicts and the plague that looms over Denmark. This is a perfect example of Shakespeare’s use of language to drive the plot forward, establish conflict, reveal Hamlet’s disposition, and set the tone for the remainder of the play.

The Ghost is also an interesting character whose dialogue has a pivotal affect on Hamlet’s mental and emotional state and the fate of the play. By the Ghost revealing the truth about the circumstances surrounding Hamlet’s father’s death, he motivates Hamlet to commit murder, the ultimate revenge, and lose his soul!

Ghost. My hour is almost come,

When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames

Must render up myself.

Hamlet.   Alas, poor ghost!

          Ghost. Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing

To what I shall unfold.

Hamlet. Speak; I am bound to hear.

Ghost. So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt

hear.

Hamlet. What?

Ghost. I am thy father’s spirit;

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confined to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison-house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up they soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes like stars, start from their spheres,

Thy knotted and combined locks to part

And each particular hair to stand an end,

Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:

But this eternal blazon must not be

To ears of flesh and blood. List, list O, list!

If thou didst every thy dear father love—

Hamlet. O God!

     Ghost. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

     Hamlet. Murder! (1.5.7-26)

Not only does this speech reveal background, and feed Hamlet’s rage, it unlocks a thick unsettling within the plot of this play. Is the Ghost used by Shakespeare to create a diabolical manifestation that lures Hamlet into a fated doom? The dialogue certainly plays an intricate part in plot development and discloses the power of choice existent in every man. Is Hamlet’s madness self-induced? The language in this play is a powerful tool that helps impart Shakespeare’s theme within the play.

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What’s up with universal appeal?

So, you want to write a screenplay that has universal appeal (don’t we all)?

There are a couple of major things you need to focus on for that to happen:  Your plot and the reason for action.
According to Aristotle, “The life and soul of all drama (tragedy) is the plot,”  and action is related to the want and need/goal of your main character.  In other words, let’s say your protagonist desires or needs love.  His or her need is going to drive him or her to respond or act according to the need.  Micheal Tierno, in his book Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters says, “When a strong desire of a hero relates to all of the action, then the plot can depict a simple ‘portrait’ of the hero.”

So, often times, action is a emotional response of the character’s need or want.  For example:  Remember the movie Cocktail (1988), which starred Tom Cruise and Elizabeth Shue?  Let’s look at the storyline.  Brian Flanagan has just gotten out of the service and wants to make money.  He wants his own business, but after being turned down in several job interviews for lack of education, he takes a job working as a bartender.  His need for money pushes him to take a job that he’s really not excited about.  However, his need produces continued actions (chains of events), to include traveling to Jamaica to work as a bartender at an upscale resort, and meeting Jordan Mooney, the seeming love of his life. His boss, Doug Coughlin also wants to own his own high-end bar, so the two come up with a game-plan.  Once again, this flawed protagonist has an agenda, and his need gives rise to action, pushes the plot forward and will eventually guide the story to resolution.

(Tom Cruise- Brian Flanagan in Cocktail, 1988)

Universal appeal is important because for an audience to relate to a character or story there must be a relationship with the character and the storyline.  So, when Brian Flanagan’s business partner (the antagonist) puts him to a dare, we (the audience) feel bad for him, because it seems like all is lost.  We’ve all been there.  Desire and need are powerful things.  We somehow relate to his plight, his frustration, his turmoil, and that is universally appealing.

Is universal appeal important?  You betcha!  Life is a journey, and we are all a part of it.  For an audience or reader to relate to a character, there must be character traits, familiar moments that we’ve walked through or witnessed.  We know how this character feels because we’ve been there and done that!

According to Aristotle, “A plot must include causes of the action that can arouse the audience’s deepest pity and fear [or laughter and tears]. This means the audience must understand the hero’s thoughts and see those thoughts becoming actions, which in turn reveal a moral quality (character) of the hero.”

Just a little writing tip, in case you’re in the midst!

I am available for online, one-on-one, script coaching.   Click here: Script coaching online

Reference:  Aristotle’s Poetics by Michael Tierno

Hungry?

I was finally able to go see the current running comedy, Chef the other night, and let me warn you now…don’t go to the theater hungry! It’s a real palate-teaser! You’ll be salivating over the food Chef Carl Casper (Jon Vavreau) serves up – that is if you’re not a vegan or vegetarian. We don’t get to just view the food; we see how it’s prepared! From the speed slicing to watching Casper butcher a pig, it’s all about cuisine, even though a Los Angeles Times food critic (Oliver Platt) is less-than impressed.

Serving up a star-studded cast: Chef star writer/director, Jon Favreau, the ever-sexy Scarlett Johansson, stunning Sophia Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, sous chef buddy, John Leguizamo, adorable Emjay Anthony, Casper’s 10-year-old son, who frequently steals the show, Oliver Platt and a fleeting encounter with Robert Downey Jr., whose character is offbeat and probably unnecessary.

Chef Casper is an outstanding chef, or at least he used to cook from the heart, but things have been going downhill for the robust cook. Newly divorced, he tries to juggle fatherhood while working as the head chef at a thriving restaurant in Los Angeles.

His claim to fame quickly comes to a halt when his boss forces him to stick to the “traditional, boring” menu, and he’s given an insulting review in the Times. In an effort to reclaim his honor, Casper gets his son to help him set up a Twitter account and publicly confronts the reporter on Twitter, setting off a widespread cyber war. As a result, the angry chef gets fired and finds himself in a pickle!

Casper’s ex-wife, the lovely Vergara makes him an offer he can’t refuse: She gets him to accompany her and their son to Miami, where she arranges a meeting between her wealthy first ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr), and Casper. Casper is given a dilapidated food truck so he can get back to basics and cook the way he wants.

If you haven’t salivated yet, I assure you it will happen once the food truck is cleaned and remodeled. Aye carumba! Joined by his cooking buddy Martin (John Leguizamo), who shows up out of nowhere, Casper taps into his creative side and creates a Cuban sandwich menu sensation. Casper, his son Percy and Martin cook their way back to L.A. – road trip style. Midpoint, the film becomes ridiculously predictable. There are no surprises, but there’s some good Latin music, great looking food, and moments of sentimentality as the chef enjoys much needed “quality” time father-son moments while on the road, blogging and tweeting as they go!

By the time “El Jef Cabanos” makes it back to L.A., Chef Casper’s fame has spread through the land! He’s back, cooking his own food and all’s well that ends well. Not only does Chef Casper get his creative juices flowing, his relationship with his ex-wife and Percy are fully restored, and the journalist who gave Chef a bad rap is now singing his praises after downing one of his Cuban sandwiches. So much so, that he backs him and Chef Casper opens his own restaurant! Although the film is ridiculously predictable, and the plot resolutions are somewhat contrived and unrealistic, it has some endearing moments, and the food looks pretty amazing.

Guaranteed… you’ll walk away hungry!

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Plotting your way to a compelling screenplay

Plotting your way to a compelling screenplay

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be teaching a webinar on PLOT for The Writers Store on December 18 from 1:00 – 4:00 (Pacific Standard Time).

ABOUT THE WEBINAR

Screenwriting structure can be daunting to the best of writers if the elements are not properly understood.  In fact, screenwriting has more structure than any other form of creative writing, with the exception of certain styles of poetry.  While each element is vital to the art of screenwriting, plot is probably the most misunderstood of all. It is not story.  

Even though we can isolate each element of structure, and compartmentalize how they function in a script, this is not about a formula for writing, but having a greater understanding of the building blocks that make a story great.  Carla says, “Screenwriting is not like any other kind of writing, because it is for a visual medium.  While the elements of story (plot, storyline, character arcs, story arcs, and good dialogue are also shared in creating a work of fiction, there are a couple of fundamental differences in the process of writing for the screen.”  One major difference is the use of exposition to drive a plot forward.

Carla currently teaches screenwriting at Santa Barbara City College Continued Learning and holds regular workshops in Montecito.  She has written a dozen original screenplays and two have been optioned.

WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:

  • The difference between plot and story
  • How action is used in the plot to advance the story
  • The relationship between plot, story and character
  • Is plot just about a random sequence of events?
  • Plotting = planning
  • Timing is everything: How does timing influence the evolvement of the story?
  • How character creates plot

WHO SHOULD ATTEND?

  • Novice and advanced screenwriters
  • Screenwriters who want a better understanding of plot
  • Writers who want to learn more about the craft of screenwriting
  • Writers who want to challenge themselves
  • Screenwriters who write in all genres
  • Screenwriters who want to learn
  • Anyone “truly” interested in writing a industry-acceptable, compelling story for the screen

For information or to sign-up, please click on the following link:  

http://www.writersstore.com/plotting-your-way-to-a-compelling-screenplay/

I love incredible movie moments

I’ve been reading Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years A Slave, and it’s been quite a revealing narrative — a 12- year nightmare, truthfully.

I’ve been eager to see the film adaptation, and I went last night.  It did not disappoint. It  is incredibly sobering.  It’s brilliantly written and brilliantly acted, but unsparing and gut-wrenching. John Ridley did an amazing job with this script, and Steve McQueen’s directing is equally good.  Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 96% rating, and it’s no wonder. “It’s far from comfortable viewing, but 12 Years a Slave’s unflinchingly brutal look at American slavery is also brilliant — and quite possibly essential — cinema.” — Rotten Tomatoes

I couldn’t agree more with the review posted on Rotten Tomatoes.  The fact that this is written from Solomon Northup’s perspective only makes the intensity of the story that much greater.  This has top billing in my book, but beware, it’s graphic and boldly honest, so if you have a weak stomach, you might want to re-think viewing this.

Brilliant writing, brilliant acting, brilliant directing = incredible movie moments.

Trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIqodUJ-UfM

Storytelling for the screen

Storytelling is instinctive to the human condition, and screenwriting is storytelling.  At the core of storytelling, is a cerebral, emotional, social and psychological connection.  Every screenwriter has the responsibility of creating a story (even if comedic) that will connect with the audience.  What do the works of famed literary artists like: Shakespeare, Homer, Aesop, Chaucer, Euripides, Virgil, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Leo Tolstoy, and Dante all have in common?  They have been able to characterize simple life truths into stories – stories that are connected to the human condition.  This connection is experienced by the reader/audience as they identify with the characters.

Psychologist William Indick says, “Through the unconscious process of “identification,” the people in the audience [readers] actually become the characters that they identify with in the film, and they experience, vicariously, the same psychological development and catharsis that the characters on the screen [or in a book] experience.”

Catharsis is a term that was set into motion by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 -322 BCE).  Aristotle established the guidelines for literary tragedy that are very much in place today.  In his famous Poetics (350 BCE), Aristotle defines “catharsis” as follows:  “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude…in the form of action, not of narrative, through pity, and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions (section 1, part VI).”  Purgation is actually more literally translated “catharsis,” and comes from the word, “Greekkatharsis,” and means cleansing.

*More on Catharsis: http://www.bookkaholic.com/what-to-read-part-6-catharsis/

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

It is no mystery as to why the classics (movies, literature and theatrical plays) have stood the test of time.  How is it that an audience today can still relate to the heartbreak of two young lovers in Romeo and Juliet?  Why do we feel empathy for Topol in Fiddler on the Roof when her father Tevye disowns her for choosing to marry outside the Jewish faith?  It is because these stories represent real people with authentic issues, while illuminating simple truths about life.  In essence, we “feel” the characters pain.  When Willy Loman is cast aside at 60 years old in the play, The Death of a Salesman, we again are moved by his troubles and so many disappointments of his past.

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As screenwriters, we have a responsibility to create stories that are relatable.  No matter what the genre, every good story must have a protagonist who will be forced to make a choice.  The classic hero struggles with human flaws, psychological reactions to conflict from the beginning of the story all the way to the end, where we (the audience/reader) see the protagonist’s transformation.

Story is not to be confused with plot.  Screenwriter and author Kate Wright says, “Story and plot are intricately woven inside story events, and while the audience cannot tell them apart, each us distinct: Plot is self-evident, and we experience it objectively, scene by scene.  Story is the deeper meaning behind the plot, and we subjectively infer its moral truth—or absolute truth—sequentially, by identifying with the inner moral struggle of the main character.”

So, with the realization that “story” must connect to humanity, we (as writers) begin the journey of unfolding the premise, from FADE IN to FADE OUT.  It cannot just be about an idea, or bang-up and shoot-out events.  A screenplay (like fiction) has a beginning, middle and end, and it is a combination plate of unfolding events that will bring the hero to transformation.  Of course, it’s not just “any” event.  All events must play a part in defining the world of the story, addressing the theme or central idea (which needs to be addressed in the first 5 minutes, pushing the plot forward, revealing the journey/plight of the protagonist, and so on.

“A STORY EVENT creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a VALUE.” – Robert McKee, Story

The values that McKee speaks about are those universal qualities found within every human experience.  No matter what the characteristic, whether it be fear or confidence, joy, anger, hope, despair, wisdom, truth or lies, morality, and even death and life, these (and many more) are the catalyst for conflict.

According to McKee, “Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask:  What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment?”  Identify the value/emotion in the scene from the beginning to the ending. Looking objectively at every scene, and asking this question is a great way to identify the significance of the scene, and according to McKee, it will lead you to a second important question:  “Why is this scene in my script?”

A Great Rule: Enter late; exit early.

Go back to every scene (and every conversation) and find the latest possible point you can enter that conversation or scene.

a)     Begin your scene there. Cut everything that comes before it.

b)    Next, find the earliest place you can exit the scene, and end your scene there (cutting everything after it).

c)     Try to cut your scene before it resolves.  Leave something dangling, and end with a question—something unanswered, or as David Ball says, “End with a forwarding action.”

It really is all about the STORY.  Without a story, you don’t have characters.  Without a story, you don’t have a screenplay, and without a story you don’t have a movie.

There is a correlation between story and life, and it’s a connection that must not be missed.  McKee says, “Story is metaphor for life.”  So, it doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing in; what does matter is that your story must have a relationship with human experience.  Ask yourself the question, “Is your story life-like?”

It’s not about figuring out the marketplace, but mastering the craft of screenwriting, and that is no small quest.  David Ball, author of Backwards & Forwards recently said, “Screenwriting is a group art form.  It is largely technique, plus art and inspiration. If you want to play, you have to learn how the game is played.  Successful writers master a technique before they reject it.”

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The Lone Ranger needs to be rescued from itself!

…Well, as fond as I am of Johnny Depp and as fond as I am of the original Lone Ranger stories, the new Jerry Bruckheimer film has a few issues.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, when you read you begin with A – B – C, when you WRITE you begin with an opening that is going to hook the audience.  However, that did not happen.

I don’t know… maybe it’s me, but I wasn’t keen on seeing an aged (decaying) Tonto (Johnny Depp) on display at a Wild West Historical Museum as the opening image to this epic tale.  It was just weird.  For the first 10 minutes of the film, I sat there thinking, “Oh great.  This entire film is going to be a flashback!”  Its predictability nearly lulled me to sleep.  Even though the mummified Depp comes to life and “trades” a dead mouse for peanuts (which he proceeds to eat, shell and all) with a young boy dressed like the Lone Ranger, the opening image did not deliver.

I understand that action/adventure films are clearly their own genre, but when you take famous characters like the Lone Ranger and his side-kick Tonto, there needs to be something other than trains blowing up and disproportionate stunts to keep the plot moving forward. This re-invention of The Lone Ranger lacked depth for so many reasons.  Even the acting genius of Depp couldn’t pull this story out of its dull state.  Perhaps this is the reason for so many things blowing up. How many explosions does an audience need to see in a 2-hour period?  Were the explosions making up for what was lacking in the story? Then there is the issue of the “perpetual” run-away train, which crashes and burns and then resurrects before the next scene!

Poor Tonto, he’s been rejected by his tribe for accidentally showing the “white man” where all the silver was when he was a little boy, in exchange for a pocket watch from Sears and Roebuck.  I realize that reference was intended to be comedic, but it was just odd.  Especially since Sears and Roebuck began as a mail order catalog in 1893, and didn’t actually become a physical store until 1925.  The flashback takes us into 1833 (someone didn’t do their research).  Since therapists and Paxil didn’t exist back in that day, Tonto just roams around with a dead raven on top of his head.  He’s a “man departed,” and a “Wendigo Hunter,” which is code for a “nut job.”

The storyline was hard to follow – jumping from one thing after another, exhausting the audience along the way.  I heard comments after the film ended like, “Wow, longest damn film I’ve been to in forever,” or “Finally.  I didn’t think it would ever end.”  That’s a probably not good sign when walking out of a theater.  When the plot is not well written, and things jump around too much, it becomes hard to connect to the characters.  For those of us who grew up watching the original television series, this was frustrating.

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Originally, The Lone Ranger began as a weekly radio broadcast that spanned 21 years.  The television series came later, and was on for 8 years.  While we did not have extraordinary stunts and pyrotechnic oomph back in the day, we were drawn into the characters.  This was not the case with Bruckheimer’s version. The characters were not properly developed – perhaps even confused from the start.  They forgot that Tonto was not the lead character, but the Lone Ranger’s sidekick.  In the new version, Tonto definitely gets top billing, and leaves the handsome masked ranger (Armie Hammer) riding on Silver through the tumbleweed of Texas (or rather Utah).

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The plot is convoluted and the tone disastrous, which obviously led to the writers trying to connect the dots with forced humor and action over-kill.  

The ending is equally as bad as the beginning.  Suddenly, we’re back in the Museum. Tonto finished eating the peanuts, and continues to tell his story to the little boy dressed up as the masked ranger.  No longer dressed like an Indian, Tonto is in a suit (perhaps an Armani).  He puts on a bowler hat over his dead raven, and Tonto disappears from the museum window.  In a flash the “dead” raven is resurrected, and flies out of the exhibit window toward the screen.  As the credits roll, the styling lizard-skinned Tonto walks out into the Utah wilderness and he’s carrying a suitcase.  I don’t remember ever being so confused by an ending in my life.

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