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Archive for October, 2009

Do you have an active protagonist? Oct 31

Ripley from AliensOne of the most common problems I encounter in scripts is the passive protagonist.

If you’re writing a mainstream Hollywood movie, you need to make sure your protagonist is active.

What does it mean to have an “active” protagonist?

Robert McKee writes, in his amazing book, Story:

“An ACTIVE PROTAGONIST, in the pursuit of desire, takes action in direct conflict with the people and the world around him.”

The protagonist is the one pushing the action and pursuing their external goal with dogged determination. That’s the hero we want to see (in any genre of movie). They are not merely reacting to things being thrown at them or being pulled along through the adventure.

In a group dynamic, the active protagonist becomes the leader. He or she is the character who, after Act I, begins to make the critical decisions.

In a Hollywood script, there really are only three allowable times that your main character can be somewhat passive:

1. In the first few pages of your script

Before the main story catalyst occurs, your protagonist can be somewhat passive in their normal world — but only if that’s part of the your hero’s overall character arc. If your hero’s journey takes them from a place of weakness to strength, then this approach is acceptable.

However, if your character doesn’t have this specific arc, it’s not advisable to have a passive protagonist at this stage of your story. It becomes very difficult for the audience to empathize with, and respect, someone who isn’t trying to take control of their lives.

Remember, even wimps can be proactive. Just because they get their their lunch money taken away, doesn’t mean they don’t first try to take steps to avoid the bullies — that’s being active. Active is always more compelling than passive.

2. After the catalyst/inciting incident/call to action

Typically within the first 8 to 15 pages of a script, something happens that disrupts the hero’s normal world. It might be an opportunity that presents itself, like going along as an observer with a rag-tag group of military types to investigate some missing colonists (Aliens).

Sometimes the hero refuses the call flat out. At first Ripley told Burke that she wanted no part of the mission.1 The hero is allowed to vacillate and have some doubt or trepidation at this point in your story. But ultimately, they need to heed the call and make that conscious decision to act — which leads them into Act II.

3. When “All is Lost” — usually late in Act II

At some point, usually toward the end of in Act II, the hero gets the crap beaten out of them (either physically or mentally or both), and has a moment of crisis. The protagonist takes a moment to wallow in self doubt, after having just endured some form of tragedy or failure.

In his brilliant book, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder referred to this period as, the “Dark Night of the Soul.” It happens right after the “All is Lost” moment. He believed these beats occurred in every successful movie and was part of the formula necessary for that success.

And while the hero may or may not be taking any action during this phase, they are usually still actively planning their next move. At the very least, events are conspiring to buoy their spirits, or give them the inspiration or help necessary to make them active again, and break into Act III.

So take a hard look at your script and make sure your protagonist is active throughout (with only these few possible exceptions). It’s your best chance for writing a compelling script.


  1. Many would argue that the very act of deciding to not do something, is active, because she’s the one making the decision.
Category: Characters  | 5 Comments
Seven ways to ensure your scenes are lean and mean Oct 30

Trim The FatLike exercising, screenwriting takes discipline. Before you sell your script, there’s no one there to police your scenes but you. As such, one of the most common mistakes writers make is they allow their scenes to binge on the Vegas-sized buffets of their imagination.

And their scenes get fat.

What I mean is, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the world of your characters and end up with a scene that’s much larger and longer than it should be. This can lead to script bloat which, if left unchecked, can be fatal to your screenplay. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Seven Ways To Ensure Your Scenes Are Lean And Mean

1. Come in late. Get out early.

It’s an old screenwriting adage. It means that you should start your scene as late as possible (cut out all the non-essential stuff at the beginning of the scene), and end your scene as quickly as possible. In essence, you should ask yourself, “How short can I make this scene and still achieve its purpose and maintain the maximum impact?”

Take that scene from the end of Star Wars. Luke, Han and Chewbacca walk into the throne room, march between the ranks of soldiers, get up to the stage, receive their medals, share an inappropriate look or two with Princess Leia, and then the scene ends. There weren’t even any words spoken. It was powerful and triumphant.

But what if before the room doors open, Han checks his hair in the mirror, Luke mumbles something about stage fright and Chewie dries off with a towel after his flea bath? Lame.

Or what if at the end of the scene, C-3PO dances a jig, Han poses for pictures and Luke invites Leia out for some roasted Ewok. Strange and unsettling, sure, but most importantly, it’s unnecessary. It slows things down and loses the energy from the scene that came before.

It’s easy to fall in love with your characters and just have them interacting and existing in their world, without any purpose to it. If their actions aren’t advancing the plot, they should be advancing out of your script.

2. Show, don’t tell

Suppose I have a scene where 13 year old Billy is at the dinner table and he’s becoming upset because his parents are shouting at each other. I could write a block of dialogue where Billy suddenly yells at his parents to shut up, then says something heartfelt about how they’re making him feel.

Or… I could have Billy grab his glass of juice and throws it against the wall.

Short, simple and it got the point across in one line. Billy showed us, he didn’t tell us. The scene is then less “on the nose” and also several lines shorter.

While showing is good, be careful you…

3. Don’t show everything that would have happened to your character

If I need to have a scene in my movie where my protagonist has an awkward breakfast with his wife that’s just arrived home at 8 a.m. after a night out partying with “the girls,” I don’t need to first show him getting up, picking out what to wear, brushing his teeth, petting the dog, making the waffles, etc.

Just because my character would have done these things, doesn’t mean I need to show it. It’s just filler. So it goes into the garbage disposal.

4. Ask yourself if less is more

A classic example of the less is more principle is that Raiders of the Lost Ark scene where Indy shoots the sword-wielding man. It’s infinitely better than a protracted fight scene. This was actually an example of a good directing choice (the fight scene was in the script), but its lesson is still valid.

Thelma and Louise ends with a bunch of slow motion shots of the duo driving off the edge of a cliff. We know they end up dying in a fiery crash. We don’t need to see it. It was a more powerful choice to leave that part up to the viewers’ imaginations… Unless, you’re writing a horror movie. In which case, zombie Thelma and Louise should bite someone on the ankle when they get too close to the wreckage.

Always ask yourself: Would my scene would be more powerful if I end it before the audience sees what it knows is about to happen? Most times, ending a scene after two lovers tumble onto a bed is far better than showing what comes next. If we get it, and there are no surprises, you don’t need to write it.

5. Leave them hanging

If you’re writing a scene that happens anywhere in the middle of your movie, you should always end the scene with the viewer wanting more; wanting to see what comes next. Often times you can generate that excitement and anticipation by ending a scene before showing too much of a good thing.

It happens all the time in romantic movies. The soon-to-be lovers have fantastic chemistry… sparks are flying… an accidental brush of the hands here, an awkward stare there… and the scene ends.

You’re left hanging, but in a good way. You can’t wait to see the next situation these two are in, because you’re sure, this will be the time they finally kiss… and then of course it isn’t. So you’re teased along until they do finally kiss, but then the girl, who suffers from multiple personality disorder, runs away saying, “What am I doing? I’m a lesbian!” and you’re left hanging again.

6. Trim redundancy

Look at the structure of your scene. See if you’re hitting the same beats. That goes for both action and dialogue.

Let’s take our scene where the husband has an awkward breakfast with his wife. Suppose she runs away from him, he chases and catches her. They share some choice words. Then she escapes and he chases and catches her again. They have some even more intense dialogue… We’re repeating the beats of the scene and watering down its impact.

In dialogue, it’s even easier to make this mistake. Take the line:

HUSBAND

I trusted you! I took you at your word! It’s Eight A.M. Helen!

The sentence: “I took you at your word!” is redundant. It’s not adding anything new to the dialogue. So cut it, or the previous line. Saving a line here and there can can be a huge blessing when your script is running long.

Bottom line…

7. Remember the point of the scene

When all else fails, remember to stick to the point of the scene. Why is this scene in your movie? If you can’t come up with a good reason, it shouldn’t be there. But if it needs to be there, stick to the reason why it needs to be there. Complete the scene in the shortest, most creative and poignant way, then end it.

A scene should ideally develop character and advance the plot. If it’s a comedy, there should probably be a laugh in there as well. If it’s doing anything else, have a hard look at the scene. There may be some fat to trim.

Category: Dialogue, Scenes, Style  | 3 Comments
Are you my density? Oct 29

“I’m your density.” – George McFly

George McFlyAre you still writing dense paragraphs of description in your script? You know what I mean. Those paragraphs that keep going and going like the Energizer Bunny. If so, it may be working against you.

How long is too long?

There’s no hard and fast formula, so you just have to put yourself in the mindset of the beleaguered script reader. He or she is reading a dozen or so scripts every week. If they have to wade through pages and pages of thick paragraphs, it’s not going to put them in their happy place. And we really, really want them in their happy place.

One Word: Whitespace

It’s the Covergirl approach to screenwriting. Keep things easy, breezy and beautiful. From a psychological point of view, the less you can make reading your script feel like drudgery, the more likely it is that the reader can focus on, and become engaged in, the story.

So give me a number already?

The way I see it, if the Wachowski Brothers can get away with four line, or fewer, paragraphs to describe The Matrix (with rare five line exceptions), what the heck are you describing that you need six or more lines?

So I would see if you can get away with four or fewer lines per paragraph. It’s amazing how imposing this rule on your writing forces you to tighten things up. The last screenplay I wrote, I imposed a three line maximum on myself and was able to accomplish it. The final draft ended up being much stronger.

Breaking up the paragraphs

In desktop publishing they call it “chunking.” If you have a lot of information to present, break it up into chunks.

A good rule to follow when crafting your scenes is to imagine it like a movie. If you would likely see the action you’re describing in more than one shot, then break it up.

Let’s use an example from The Matrix. See if you can tell where this paragraph should be broken:

Neo is a blur of motion. In a split second, three guards are dead before they hit the ground. A fourth guard dives for cover, clutching his radio.

The shot changes when we go from Neo to the Fourth guard, so here’s how it reads in the script:

Neo is a blur of motion. In a split second, three guards are dead before they hit the ground.

A fourth guard dives for cover, clutching his radio.

So keep it simple and don’t be my density.

Category: Style  | Leave a Comment
Take action with your verbs Oct 27

Killer VerbsAs brevity in screenwriting is so crucial, it’s extremely important to pick verbs that do more than just describe the action.

In the rush to get that first draft of our script finished, we often plug in action words that we use every day in conversation or that come to us quickly. The two laziest ones of them all are: “looks” and “walks” (and their cousins: “sees” and “goes”).

And what’s wrong with these choices?

Well, they don’t tell us anything about the quality of the action. Why not use a word that packs emotional or sensory punch, and give that script reader a more visceral experience?

Which of these descriptions is more engaging and evocative?

Jerry looks at Karen.

Or:

Jerry gazes at Karen.

With “gazes” we get a sense of attraction, intent, perhaps love.

How about these two?

Ben walks down the alley.

Or:

Ben skips down the alley.

With “skips” we get a sense of Ben’s joy, state of mind and personality.

Bumping up the quality of your action words, is an easy way to bump up the quality of your script.

Category: Style  | One Comment
Write Like a Pro — Avoid Adverbs Oct 26

Every day this week I’ll be posting a new article on common mistakes screenwriters make.

NoAdverbsToday’s topic is adverbs — you know, those flowery words that usually end in “ly.” Words like: quickly, haphazardly, vastly, very, annoyingly… etc. They describe verbs or adjectives. These words are great if you’re writing a novel, but they can brand you as an amateur if you use them extensively in your scene description. (In the last script I wrote, I didn’t use a single one)

“But why?” you ask eagerly. “I genuinely love adverbs. They give me that wonderfully fuzzy feeling.”

It’s simple. It’s often the mark of a lazy screenwriter. Our job is to write only what you can see and hear, in a succinct, clever and accurate way. That requires coming up with the perfect verb or adjective to describe the scene. And usually that’s enough.

Instead of:

The Grinch moves stealthily across the floor like a frighteningly evil cat.

You could use:

The Grinch creeps across the floor like a demonic cat.

Or:

The Grinch slinks across the floor like a possessed cat.

You get the idea. Get rid of the adverbs if you can and use better verbs and adjectives. I could have just eliminated “stealthily” and kept “moves,” but “moves” is too simple of a verb. We’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

Sometimes, though, you can simply eliminate the adverb and still achieve the same effect. In a script I read recently, the writer had used something like, “… grossly gnarled hand.” If a hand is gnarled, the “grossly” part is redundant. After all, I’ve never seen a beautifully gnarled hand.

Remember, the no-adverb rule only applies to scene description. Go nuts in dialogue, etc. if it feels authentic.

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Category: Style  | 2 Comments