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Archive for November, 2009

Save The Cat! Logline Contest Nov 30

Blake Snyder’s web site is holding another logline contest. Here are the rules:

All of you Cats are invited to join STC!’s final contest for the year.  To enter, use the STC! rules of a well-written logline to rework the logline of a well-known movie and turn it into a Holiday classic.

For more deets, head over to Blake’s website1.


Category: Links, Loglines  | Leave a Comment
Percentage of good scripts Nov 30

The Bitter Script Reader answers my question about his experience with competent scripts. I like his zen approach to accepting poor formatting, then moving on.

With what percentage of scripts is the quality of formatting and screenwriting craft sufficient enough that you can just settle in and review the story on its own merits?

Hard to say in terms of percentage, but I’d say that maybe at least 75% of the scripts I read fall into this category. There are a lot with formatting errors, but usually by ten pages I’ve accepted the formatting flaws and managed to commit to reading the story without getting angered anew on each page.

For more answers and insight, check out his post.

Category: Formatting  | Leave a Comment
Edgy Screenwriting – Part 1B: Jerks That Work Nov 29

A likable jerkRecap

This is the follow-up to yesterday’s article on the dangers of the “Jerk Protagonist” (an irredeemable jackass who we can’t stand at the beginning of your script) and why I recommend avoiding this type of protagonist.

Today we’ll look at ways to turn that jackass into a protagonist we like, despite his obvious jerkitude. It’s part two (okay, technically part 1B) of a series on “Edgy Screenwriting” (AKA “Ways to bugger up your script”).

Jerks That Work

Most screenwriters who are intent on creating a jerk protagonist, will cite roles like Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets, or Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa. But there are specific reasons why these jerks work. And even though they play “unlikeable” characters, the audience still likes them — and that’s an important distinction. The protagonist must be written in a way that endears them to the audience in some way.

6 Ways to make the audience (or reader) embrace your jerk protagonist

1. Make Us Like Them

Blake Snyder’s brilliant screenwriting book, Save The Cat!, takes its name from a commonly occurring early scene in a movie where the protagonist does something (like saving a cat) to make him likable to the audience. For a jerk protagonist, it’s an easy way to show that he does in fact have some good in him… buried deep down beneath the gristle. It doesn’t have to be something obvious, but there should be something evident that makes us believe the jerk protagonist can change their ways.

Typically with jerk protagonists, however, the opposite of Save The Cat! occurs — Kill The Cat! For example, the opening scene of As Good As It Gets has Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) tossing a dog down a garbage chute.  So why then do we start to like Melvin?

2. Make Us Feel Sympathy For Them

The scene right after that shows Melvin going through his bizarre obsessive compulsive routine of repeatedly locking his door, turning on and off his lights and washing his hands (with brand new bars of soap each time) in scalding hot water.

Ahhh we get it. This poor guy has mental illness. Most of us can’t relate to his disorder, but we can certainly feel sympathy for him. The more offensive a protagonist, the quicker we need to understand the underlying problems behind the sour disposition. In Bad Santa, we quickly realize that Billy Bob Thornton’s character is a depressed drunk.

3. Make Us Feel Empathy For Them

Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) in Legally Blonde isn’t a classic jerk, but she walks the fine line of being unlikable with her perfectionism, perkiness, and odd manner of dress and speech.

But when Elle gets dumped by her boyfriend, we can all relate to that feeling, and we immediately have empathy for her. We’re now on her side, rooting for her.

4. Make Us Respect Them

In The Last Seduction, Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) is a coldhearted, ruthless, manipulative protagonist. But she does have a couple of redeeming characteristics — she’s sexy, and more importantly, she’s smart.

Bridget is always a couple moves ahead of everyone in the movie, and we respect that. Even though we can’t necessarily agree with her actions, we admire her brilliance and cunning. So the character works. Similarly, we can admire characters who are brave/crazy/clever enough to say the things we’d all love to say, but can’t come up with quickly enough, or would be considered rude in polite society.

5. Make Us Enjoy Watching Them Fail

Sometimes, we get a thrill out of seeing a miserable protagonist get their comeuppance for inappropriate actions or words uttered. Larry David’s “character” on the HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm has us jumping back and forth between respecting his biting wit, and simply enjoying his epic failures.

And last, but not least…

6. Make Them More Likable Than The Other Characters

We see this technique quite often in mafia movies and shows. The mafia is a corrupt and violent organization. So how do you get your audience to like your mob protagonist? Make him more upstanding than the characters he surrounds himself with. Give him some honorable family values.

The Godfather saga does a good job utilizing this approach with Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). Another great example is Ray Liotta’s character in GoodFellas.

Bottom Line

It’s tricky business writing a jerk protagonist. If you undertake the challenge, be sure to make your protagonist enjoyable to watch in some way by using one, or more, of the techniques above.

Category: Characters  | One Comment
Edgy Screenwriting – Part 1A: The Jerk Protagonist Nov 28

Is your protagonist from the Jerk Store?This is part one of a series on “Edgy Screenwriting” (AKA “Ways to bugger up your script”). The first article in this series asks the timeless question:

Is your protagonist a real jerk?

I’m not talking about a protagonist with a biting wit, or one who sometimes says things they shouldn’t — those can be great qualities for your protagonist. I’m not even talking about those protagonists we love to hate.

I want to know — is your protagonist an irredeemable jackass who we can’t stand at the beginning of your script?

If the answer is “yes” — you may be scriptwrecked

New writers, especially, enjoy creating protagonists who are unlikeable. They consider it to be edgy screenwriting. After all — you don’t see that many movies with completely unlikeable protagonists, so that’s a totally new take, right?

Well the idea is sound, but unfortunately it’s not a totally new take. It’s a take that occurs all too often in spec scripts. And all too often, it’s not well received… which is why these scripts don’t get purchased… which is why there aren’t that many movies like that.

Now don’t get me wrong, your protagonist doesn’t have to be a good person, but…

It’s important that we like, enjoy or respect your protagonist

… especially at the beginning of your script. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. We have to invest about 2 hours of our time with your protagonist — it’s a much more enjoyable ride if we like him or her. We’ve all been stuck on a long car ride with someone who was unapologetically irritating right? Not fun.
  2. We need to develop a rooting interest for your protagonist’s goal, otherwise we’re less invested in the story. We can’t root for them if we don’t care about them.
  3. If the lead is an unlikeable jackass, what star is going to want to play that role? Hollywood is a business after all. Look at your script as actor bait.
  4. You may only have 10 pages to develop your protagonist to the point where the producer or exec reading your script doesn’t toss it on the reject pile. You can’t be in the room to say, “No wait — he becomes more likeable on page 48!” That’s too late.
  5. An unlikeable protagonist means that your movie will most likely not do well at the box office. So if it’s not a good return on investment, your script’s not worth buying and developing.

Is your protagonist thoroughly unlikeable? Tomorrow we’ll look at ways to fix that… as well as some well known protagonists who appear at first to be irredeemable jerks (Billy Bob Thornton, I’m lookin’ at you), and why they work.

Category: Characters  | 3 Comments
Those aren’t pillows! Nov 26

Required Viewing for ThanksgivingQuick — what’s the first movie that pops into your head when you think of “Thanksgiving”?

For me, it’s without a doubt: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

If you’re unfamiliar with the 1987 comedy, here’s a description of it from Amazon:

Neal Page is an advertising executive who just wants to fly home to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with his family. But all Neal Page gets is misery. Misery named Del Griffith – a loud mouthed, but nevertheless loveable, salesman who leads Neal on a cross-country, wild goose chase that keeps Neal from tasting his turkey. Steve Martin (Neal) and John Candy (Del) are absolutely wonderful as two guys with a knack for making the worst of a bad situation. If it’s painful, funny, or just plain crazy, it happens to Neal and Del in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Every traveler’s nightmare in a comedy-come-true!

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is truly one of my favorite comedy movies of all time. It’s well structured, hilarious, quotable and unusually heartwarming. You really care about the two main characters as they take you on their hellacious cross country trip.

The link I’ve provided is to the “Those Aren’t Pillows” Edition, which apparently has a deleted scene and several featurettes. It’s definitely a must-see, or a must-see-again, movie.

Wishing all my family, friends, and readers a very happy Thanksgiving (and a trample-free Black Friday).


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