There’s Something Deeper Going On…

According to William Indick, author of Psychology for Screenwriters, “film is an extremely powerful psychological force.” If this is true, then we don’t just go to the movies to be entertained. There is something deeper going on.

There is nothing like a film that jolts your emotions. Whether you are moved to tears, or nearly fallout on the floor laughing, when your reactions to a story are vivid, you will remember the story long after you’ve digested the popcorn and moved on with life; it is indelible. But lasting connections do not just happen, especially in works of literature or in film. It is the result of calculated writing, which includes an understanding of human behavior and the relationship between conflict and human emotion.

Thank you screenwriter J.V. Hart and WriterDuet creator/software developer Guy Goldstein for creating a new story-mapping tool kit for screenwriters, which not only focuses on the plot, but the emotional journey of your characters.

I am excited to see how the collaborative efforts of these two masterminds will pay off!  I have used WriterDuet since it was first launched a few years ago, and I continue to stay amazed.  Screenwriter J.V. Hart has certainly seen his share of success with screenplays like:  Hook, Dracula, Tuck Everlasting, Muppet Treasure Island,  and Contact, and while HartChart is not new, it’s going live,  and I can hardly wait until its launching at the Austin Film Festival in October!

Details and Sign-Up here:  HartChart

Advertisements

What happened?

I have been sitting at my desk working on writing for 2 straight days.  Of course, I slept and ate, but you get the idea.

Anyway… I actually started writing this post when the movie Noah came out, which was back in March.  I haven’t had a minute to work on this blog, or any other blog.  Life can get very busy.

So, back in March (the week Noah came out), I decided to see the latest and greatest version — you know, Noah, take two!

There’s no denying that Darren Aronofsky’s Bible epic was well-acted.  How do you write a bad review about Russell Crowe.  It doesn’t happen too often. He’s a great actor, and he played the part of Noah well.  That doesn’t mean that I agree with the way Noah’s character was written, because I found it oddly interpreted, but Crowe performed well. He, which is not surprising, really takes on the roll. Most all of the other characters were underdeveloped, and that is another issue in my estimation. Noah himself definitely gets top billing, and somewhat holds the film together.  He is in a constant state of revision, flitting between hero to anti-hero almost overnight, when he becomes quite obsessed with the idea that “all humanity,” including his family have entirely missed the mark, will be punished and completely destroyed.  Guess he figures he’ll just continue where God leaves off.  He will stop at nothing to see that end accomplished too, even if it means destroying one of his kids, and much like Moses, sacrificing one of his own (his sons newborn twins).  His poor wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), is beside herself, and rightly so. Even more interesting is the antagonist that was added to the story.  Tubal-Cain, Noah’s macho-macho man rival defines the word narcissist. It actually becomes almost comical when he manages to break through the middle of the arch and camp out with the animals as a stowaway, and then winning Noah’s son over for a time.  I suppose Aronofsky felt the storyline needed some spicing up with the addition of this character and crazy sub-plot, but in no way does this deliver or even make sense.

It’s certainly easy to understand why the Christian community didn’t respond favorably to Noah.  It was not even close to accurate — at least, according to the bible.  It should be noted, that Noah is a “lose” adaptation, and often times adaptations are changed.  However, because Aronofsky makes so many changes, and ads so much fantasy, it’s past the point of believable, and moves into being just plain weird. From the mystical, expanding earth that moves through the audience through time in an instant, to the “Watchers,” the dark, sci-fi creatures that sound like Darth Vader remnants, it leaves one with the feeling that they are on an exhausting adventure ride at Disneyland. Even popcorn didn’t appease.

No doubt, the ark is impressive, and watching every creature surge toward the arch two by two, is fairly entertaining. Aronofsky doesn’t just use biblical text as his source; there is quite a potpourri from various religions, which includes: pre-Christian paganism, the Quran, Greek mythology, the Big Bang theory, and other literary works.  Also, I don’t think Noah and his famiglia were sporting English accents either, and most all of the main characters seemed to miss out on the fact that this takes place pre Great Britain (haha, actually pre-much of anything!).

In addition to the screenplay having poorly developed characters, Aronofsky taking near-laughable creative liberties, and a conglomeration of elements (as if pulled out of a hat), this action, sci-fi, epic adventure was grossly over-written.  By the end of this big screen fiasco, I found myself sitting in the darkened theater shaking my head and asking myself, “What happened?”

Russell Crowe as Noah

la_ca_0102_noah

images

Lord of the Rings?  Star Wars?  There was certainly the hint of Yoda.

 

When a story comes together in a film… well, it’s

MAGICAL!!!

For those of you who haven’t yet seen Saving Mr. Banks, I highly recommend it.  Based on the true story of P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins children’s books, Saving Mr. Banks promises to entertain, prod emotion, and warm the heart.

The story is about the making of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, and how Disney wooed author P.L. Travers to allow him to make a film about her “magical” nanny.  As expected, Emma Thompson (P.L.Travers) and Tom Hanks (Walt Disney) give absolutely wonderful performances.  The author juxtaposes the unbending, surly personality of P.L.Travers’ character, against warm-hearted, passionate and determined Walt Disney, and it works well in the storyline.  Of course, while the film’s final scene between Disney and Traver’s is endearing and heart-warming, it is completely embellished.  The real story portrays a very unhappy Travers over the final outcome of the film, and it appears Disney and Travers end things on a very sour note.

However, the film keeps the moment magical, and it works. Our hearts are lifted, and we (the audience) are contented.

saving-mr-banks

Saving Mr. Banks manages to weave together two separate stories: the story of Ginty, an eight-year-old Australian girl and her relationship with her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell).  Ginty and her father have a unique, close-knit, loving relationship that is dramatically affected by his love for the bottle.  When his life is cut short, and he dies, Ginty’s life is forever affected. The bulk of the narrative is Disney’s pursuit of the story, and the things that transpire once Travers is flown to Los Angeles to meet the writers (screenwriting and songwriting) who hope to take the Mary Poppins’ stories and adapt them for the screen.

Travers is not easy won, which really adds to the complex scope of her character.  She is cold, indifferent, calloused, and clearly flawed.  Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith did a great job of jarring the audiences emotions with this character, and Thompson gives a rave performance.

From the time Travers arrives in Los Angeles, she is uncomfortable and unyielding, in fact, the only one who is really able to crack through her hard-hearted shell, is the friendly limo driver (Paul Giamatti) provided by Disney.  He touches the heart of Travers; something that Disney is really never able to do.  She is taken off-guard, as he gives her the grand tour of L.A. and takes her to Disneyland.  Her relationship with the driver is sincere and gives us a sense of “who” Travers “really” is, when she is normally complex, irritable, and very difficult to deal with.  Giamatti’s relationship with Travers is endearing and uplifting.

One of the biggest issues with the script, is the continual flashbacks from the present (life in the 60’s) to Ginty’s troubled childhood in Australia. These flashbacks are used to slowly unveil the complexities that surround Travers and her icy personality.   Flashbacks are tricky and can often be risky, but somehow, they work in Saving Mr. Banks.  Eventually, the audience is made aware of “why” Travers is so protective over her work; it is related to her need to protect her father.  Knowing this history gives the audience a greater understanding and appreciation for Travers.  We become engaged, and we care about this character. It’s powerful when the audience cares about the protagonist.

colin-farrell-saving-mr-banks-ginty

The film is actually more about struggle than anything else.  While we “think” it’s about how Mary Poppins was made, it’s really much more than that.  Both Travers and Disney had troubled childhoods.  Disney choose fantasy as a way to ease his own past and conquer his demons, where Travers plummeted herself into her books about a magical nanny–a nanny that would simple whisk heartache and care away.  Travers looks at the world through hardness and disappointment, and Disney creates a new world–a happy place to shield himself from pain.  It’s a compelling comparison.

No doubt, Saving Mr. Banks is well-worth seeing.  It encapsulates the word, “entertainment,” and makes the heart glad.  ❤

goff

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.

MV5BMTY1MDI1Mzc0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwODQxNjA5._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_

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.”

images

TOL (thinking out loud)

What about the story?

While I have always loved movies, my fixation with writing had more to do with the manipulation of words, and the development of a story than anything else.  Of course, for a story to arc, there are a number of things that need to take place.

For starters…

You need to ask yourself a very important question:  “What is my story about?”  That question will open up Pandora’s box, for everything that can be explored will be explored; everything that can be revealed will be revealed.  It is not just about a “story” per say.  This is where the combination of creative energy and critical thinking merge.  You can’t just focus on a story idea without critically examining every possible scenario.  I’ve quoted Michael Tierno, author of Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters time and time again.  He says, “Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agenda.”

We need to approach our story with a commitment to stay true to the story.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that storytelling (no matter what genre) requires us to lay aside preconceived ideas.  It involves always thinking outside of the box, and being open to new ideas.  It also involves having an understanding of the human condition, which is what will ultimately give it depth and universal appeal.  For a story to move to catharsis (a purification or purgation of the emotions like pity and fear released primarily through art or the purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension), this display of human circumstance must be present. Catharsis is a type of communication that builds upon pieces of our life.  When this happens in a story, the reader or audience finds relationship with the situation, and experiences an emotional release.  This generally happens in the 3rd act, and it should cause the greatest emotional response to the situation the hero finds him or herself in.  It’s that suddenly moment in a romantic comedy where the two leading characters “realize” they’re in love! As the story unfolds, our emotions rise and when we experience that emotional release, resolution and harmony comes.  Suddenly, we feel good. In fact, most of us develop an attachment to a film based on our emotional response to the film.  Screenwriters, please, please, please do not write unresolved endings (cliffhangers) that are only going to leave an audience frustrated or mad!  Author Andrew Roberts says, “It’s sheer directorial moral cowardice to cut the screen to black and deny the audience the catharsis they’ve paid their $13 to experience.”  While I do agree, it may not just be a directorial issue; it might simply be the way the writer wrote it.

Here’s another tidbit: The story cannot arc properly if the protagonist doesn’t arc.  You really cannot separate one from the other, because a good story reveals a main character that is on the journey of a lifetime.  A journey must confront his or her personality quirks, human flaws, moral choices, and personal life struggles.

Remember the movie Sideways (2004)?  From the get go, we (the audience) is made aware that the protagonist Miles has hit rock bottom.  Miles is an English teacher, and failed novelist who cannot get his book published.  He longs for his ex-wife, who has clearly moved on (she’s remarried).  Miles is a real piece of work. He has no problem stealing money from his own mother! He has enough quirks and fetishes to fill a book, or at lease a wine bottle. He epitomizes being stuck in a rut.  However, for Miles to successfully arc, he’s going to have to become unstuck.  Just like the wine that he so loves, Miles is going to have to ripen and mature.  The wine trip is a journey that confronts many of Miles’ personality quirks, flaws and personal life struggles.

scene-from-Sideways

The journey then becomes a vehicle for conflict, opposing forces, surprises and various twists and turns in the storyline that appear to impede the hero from successfully completing his or her journey.

Man-on-Road1

What do you mean I don’t have a good story?

It’s amazing.  Wherever I go, when it’s found out that I’m a screenwriter, I will get approached by someone who says, “Oh my God!  You write screenplays?  I have the BEST idea for a screenplay…” In fact, this happened to me about a month ago at a coffee shop that I frequent.  I was working on a screenplay, and the woman at the table behind me started talking with me, wanting to know what I was writing.  After she learned that I write screenplays, she said, “I have the best story ever for a comedy.” Without hesitation she began to share.  Of course, she was not too pleased with my response. I said, “You know, that’s a really funny scene, but I’m not sure it’s an actual story.  You will need to develop a story-line in order for it to work as a screenplay.”

The nub of it…you cannot build a story on a scene.  I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work.

Whaaaaaa?

Another factor to consider when writing your screenplay:  You cannot just cram together various scenes, that have no connection with each other.  That is like trying to squash a square peg in a round hole; it will never work. They must be cohesive.  Like building blocks–they need each other to stand.  So, a good story needs to promise something from the beginning.  There must be a hook, and everything that you write from the first word to “The End” must lead to a final goal. Every sentence, every stitch of dialogue, the scenes, the descriptions all connect, and an audience or reader is magically drawn in.

So, the elements that you provide for the audience or reader actually draws them in, and keeps them engaged with the story and the characters.  Good stories are made up of various elements.  There are guidelines, not hard-fast rules, but structure and strategy is paramount.

Aristotle claimed, “the ability to plot, or to create a powerful structure, is the most important aspect of writing.  Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agendas.”

A story is evolving, not static.  It is LIVING–alive with anticipation, and that anticipation holds an audience/reader to the premise like glue.

There are reasons that films like: A Beautiful Mind (2001), Dances With Wolves (1990), How Green Was My Valley (1941), Zorba The Greek (1964), Norma Rae (1979), Crazy Heart (2009), The Silence of the Lambs (1995), The Sound of Music (1965), Lord of the Rings (2000-2010), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), Whale Rider (2003), Gangs of New York (2002), La Vie En Rose ( 2007), Finding Nemo (2003), Inception (2010), Toy Story 3 (2010), Fahrenheit  911 (2004), Atonement (2007), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), to name a few, have won Oscars.

For screenplay coaching and/or editing:  carlaiacovetti.com

Other references: ReadThrough.com – where screenwriters and actors collaborate online to help bring scripts to life!

Conflict and obstacles: Driving forces in a screenplay

Aside

A story without conflict is a story that’s going nowhere.

Did I just say that?  I did.

The bottom line…if there’s no dramatic conflict, there’s no drama.  Even in comedy (which is drama with a twist), there is conflict. Remember the comedy The Hangover?  It’s conflict haven! While the film itself doesn’t do much for me, it is certainly filled with conflict and obstacles.

Now, I should probably share that conflict is not really the same thing as an obstacle.  By definition, conflict is: an argument, a disagreement (often long-lasting), a conflict of interests, a clash of opposition (like wishes or needs), a dispute, a quarrel, a struggle, warfare, etc.  Obstacle is:  a thing that blocks one’s way or hinders one’s progress. Such as an obstacle to achieving a goal.

In a screenplay, an obstacle is any resistance to the main characters want or desire.  Now, want or need creates action, so it’s imperative that you define your character’s need early-on.  When obstacles occur and work against each other, they create dramatic conflict, and this is GOOD!  Here is a life example:

The roofer’s ladder fell over and he has to go to the restroom in the worst possible way. All of the other roofers have gone to lunch, and he is alone.  He has a need, but the obstacle is the ladder that fell over.  What’s he going to do?  Yell, scream, try and find another way down… This roofer’s need motivates him to ACT and over-ride the obstacle.  Obstacles can be prodded by other people or by circumstances.  In the case of the roofer, his circumstance was the obstacle.

As a screenwriter, you have to inject conflict into your script to keep the action moving along so the audience will remain interested.

Conflict is most important when it stands in the way of the protagonists success and/or transformation. In other words, what is trying to keep your hero from succeeding?  The use of conflict and obstacles in a screenplay are immensely important, in fact, dramatic conflict (motivation vs. obstacle) is the very thing that drives the story.  Conflict creates dramatic tension.
Elizabeth English, founder of the Moondance Film Festival in Colorado says, “There are five distinct types of conflict that can be used in screenwriting. Inner or personal conflict, relational conflict, social or local conflict, situational conflict, and universal or cosmic conflict. All five types of conflict can be in a single screenplay, and can involve most, if not all of the characters, interacting with each other and with the protagonist and antagonist(s). Conflict as the central event drives the story and the characters. Conflict in the plot structure breathes life into your story! The audience relates to your protagonist and to the conflicts he or she faces. The patterns of tension resulting from the visible and invisible forces the characters overcome create a believable reality for the film-goer, and increase the film’s impact on that audience.”
There is no doubt that inner conflict is the most difficult to relay on the screen, in-particular of it’s the main conflict in a story.  A great example of this is in the film American Beauty. is the hardest type of conflict to convey successfully in a film, if that’s the central focus of conflict in the story.
Conflict is an essential element in every screenplay, no matter what the genre.  The audience needs to see the protagonist succeed on his or her journey, but part of that success is in his or her ability to overcome every obstacle and to beat continual conflict in the story.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is all about internal conflict.  Hamlet is in a war with his conscience and his inner conflict is actually resolved as he is dying, when he realizes that his mother wasn’t a part of planning his father’s death.
So, as you’re writing your story, REMEMBER  as important as it is to create conflict to move your story along,  so too must you create a main obstacle that your protagonist (hero) will struggle to overcome.