The Zen of Short Scripts

The Buckhorn Saloon in Pinos Altos, NM is reminiscent of buildings used in the sets of western movies, image from wikipedia
The Buckhorn Saloon in Pinos Altos, NM is reminiscent of buildings used in the sets of western movies, image from wikipedia

Writing Features

I began writing scripts for feature length film not because I thought that it would be a good idea, but because someone else thought I had a great story for a movie. Unfortunately (or fortunately) whatever the case may be, my friend just happened to be an agent for screenplays and TV pilots. As luck would have it, he was not very successful at negotiating sales, even though he had one of his own scripts optioned and turned into a pilot. Nonetheless, I finished my first script and seeing how relatively straightforward the process was, I went ahead and put together two more. Presently, these screenplays sit in a drawer. Here’s what I learned in the process.

Some things To Consider

Will your screenplay be economical to shoot. That means no fancy special effects, no foreign locations, and the fewer scenes you have the better off you will be if and when a Hollywood executive gets to take a real look at the script. Also a smaller cast might be an advantage also. Does anyone remember The Blair Witch Project? Your concept does not have to be that bare bones, but still the remarkable and unpredictable success of this film should be noted.

Why Make A Short Film

Overall, there are many reasons why you might want to make a short film. First of all it’s cheaper. That kind of goes without saying, for making a five minute short will be a lot easier on the old budget that a feature length. On a similar note a short film does not take a lot of time to edit and involves a smaller cast and production crew. Furthermore, the short will give the director and writer more artistic freedom, so that they might undertake riskier work. Also of note, is the improving market for short films, especially with the advent of such online markets as Vevo and Youtube. And finally, if you short takes off, it could still get previewed at a high-profile film festival or even receive an Oscar nomination for Best Short Film.

The Short Film Script

Now comes the challenge of actually sitting down and writing the short script. When you do you might want to keep some of these ideas in mind. Don’t forget that a short film is usually really short, less than ten minutes with the 2 to 5 minute range being very popular, especially if are planning to put your finished product up online. Just think of a short film as the equivalent of flash fiction….that is small bite of reality that might go over well in our contemporary world of digital communications and the 30-second sound bite. And just because your little episode is short, remember that it must tell a story. This means a beginning, middle and good ending.

Old school method of using a camcorder to make a film
Old school method of using a camcorder to make a film, from wikipedia

 

 

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Taglines, Loglines and the Haiku of Screenwriting

The Kaskelot in Bangor (England) is moored to the dock with two lines, from wikipedia, photo by Ross
The Kaskelot in Bangor (England) is moored to the dock with two lines, from wikipedia, photo by Ross

Simple Analogy (but maybe it Works)

Screenwriting is a well defined craft. There’s not a whole lot of room for flexibility…..at least not at first glance. In a script for a full length film, the text should come in at just under 120 pages. Font is a mandatory New Courier with even spaces between each letter. Your story is told from start to finish by the use of several basic written components. Most important,  is the dialogue, spoken between characters. In between dialogue,there is action and setting, which isaptly  noted by small blocks of description.

Then come the Sluglines, which give a quick  heading to each scene.  Rounding up the screenwriter’s toolbox are various commands directed towards the final composition of the film. These include such well-used prompts as fade in, fade out, superimpose, cut to and montage (of shots), just to name a few. In reality, this limited palette of writing tools just makes the writers job more challenging. Taglines and Loglines actually fall outside of writing the script and are in many ways much like the two mooring lines pictured above, for they anchor the main ship to the commercial doc. However in a screenplay, they do so in different ways.

The Logline

Loglines identify movies, for each movie has one. By the time the film hits the big screen the logline is passe′, but during the development process, the logline is essential to promoting and eventually selling the script to producers and financial backers. Therefore it is essential that the screenwriter come with a catchy one or two sentence riff that defines the proposed movie in a nutshell.

Loglines of Successful Movies

1. “A man with no name and a man with a mission hunt a Mexican bandit for different reasons.”  For a Few Dollars More

2. ” A college graduate, home for the summer, has an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, then falls in love with her daughter.”  The Graduate (Compare this with the tagline, which is much better)

3.  “Naïve Joe Buck arrives in New York City to make his fortune as a hustler, but soon strikes up an unlikely friendship with the first scoundrel he falls prey to.”  Midnight Cowboy

4. “An Iowa housewife, stuck in her routine, must choose between true romance and the needs of her family.”  Bridges of Madison County

5. “Charlie Brown is finally invited to a Halloween party; Snoopy engages the Red Baron in a dogfight; and Linus waits patiently in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin.” It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

6. Only two men can save the world when Aliens attack and attempt to loot and destroy Earth on July 4th.” Independence Day

7. “Upon admittance to a mental institution, a brash rebel rallies the patients to take on an oppressive head nurse, a woman he views more as more dictator than nurse.” One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

8. “A 17th century tale of adventure on the Caribbean Sea where the roguish yet charming Jack Sparrow joins forces with the young blacksmith in a gallant attempt to rescue the Governor of England’s daughter and reclaim his ship.” Pirates of the Caribbean

What Is a Tagline?

In short, a Tagline is an abbreviated version of a logline. It is the catchy little slogan that helps sell your movie to the right people and then it may be used a second time to make a favorable impression on the general public.

Great Movies and Their Corresponding Taglines

1. “The longer you wait, the harder it gets.” The Forty-year Old Virgin

2. “The bitch is back.” Alien 3

3. “They had a date with fate in Casablanca.” Casablanca

4. “The nearer they get to their treasure, the farther they get from the law.” The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

5. “The movie too HOT for words!” Some like It Hot

6. “It’s all about women…and their men!” All About Eve

7. “This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future.”  The Graduate

8. “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby.”  Rosemary’s Baby

9. “On every street in every city, there’s a nobody who dreams of being a somebody.” Taxi Driver

10. “M*A*S*H Gives a D*A*M*N.” M.A.S.H.

11. “How far does a girl have to go to untangle her tingle?” Deep Throat

12. “The snobs against the slobs!” Caddyshack

13. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The Shining

14. “Can two friends sleep together and still love each other in the morning?”  When Harry Met Sally

15. “And you thought Earth girls were easy…” Bad Girls from Mars

16. “What if someone you never met, someone you never saw, someone you never knew was the only someone for you?” Sleepless in Seattle

17. “This Ain’t No Chick Flick!” AND “Escape or Die Frying.” Chicken Run

18. “They have a plan…but not a clue.” O Brother, Where Art Thou?

19. “EARTH – take a good look. Today could be your last.” Independence Day

20. “The Toys are back in town.” Toy Story 2

Get the Picture

There is a distinct difference between a logline and a tagline. While the logline attempts to follow good sentence and grammatical structure, the tagline, more often than not, breaks free from the restraints of good grammar into the realm of slick sloganisms  and making the English language do the boogie-woogie. And this my friends is the basic essence of taglines and loglines.

Do E-query Services Work?

Publicity shot for Dr. Steel and his robot band from wikipedia
Publicity shot for Dr. Steel and his robot band from wikipedia

All writing is discipline, but screenwriting is a drill sergeant.”  ― Robert McKee,

My Experiment

Last year, I used two different e-query services to seek representation for two different screenplays. Here’s what happened. Over the course of several years, I had written two, feature length screenplays. Each one came in at about 120 pages, a tad long for a feature film, but still workable if I could find the right party. One adventuresome tale took place in Central America during a period of political unrest, while the other story was set on a dairy farm in the northeastern U.S. Both plays had strong comedic elements, so I thought I had a chance at optioning one of the stories, though it was definitely a long shot.

My Plan

Besides, if I could not find a buyer for the scripts, then I could always (1) enter them in screenplay contests, (2) put them up on Black List or (3) use them as an outline for a novel or novella. Since I had already invested 20,000 words in each script, I thought that I already had a pretty good draft for a short novella. Nonetheless, the idea of selling a script to Hollywood (or elsewhere) was tempting and possibly lucrative, so I chose to go down that road first.

The E-query Services

Conventional advice says not to use an e-query service for seeking representation for a screenplay or anything else literary. According to popular opinion a writer is much better off, submitting query letters to individual professionals, whose field of interest most closely matches your story. But I had tried that method with no significant results, so I decided spend a little money on an e-query service. The dairy farm script went out through Scriptblaster and for the Central American story, I chose E-query Direct. The price was 39.99 for E-query Direct (300 recipients) and 89.00 for Scriptblaster (650 recipients). Each service produced one contact worthy of mention, which is more interest than I had received from sending out queries one at a time and personalizing each query to the appropriate party. Following are my results.

An Ongoing Relationship

One development company, located in Los Angeles, requested a PDF (standard fare for screenplays) for the Central American story, then over a year later, they requested the other script, even though I had not promoted these screenplays at any other time. The readers gave very favorable comments about each story, but at this point in time, I have not received any offers on either story. However, when I do complete my next script, I will definitely be contacting this group about my latest effort.

The Phone Call The biggest surprise of all came when a successful Hollywood producer called and asked for a paper copy of the dairy farm script. I sent the script by U.S. mail and when I returned the call, I was shocked to find out that I gotten his first name wrong. This upset the man immensely and I have not heard from him since. It is likely that he didn’t like the story, but the other the side of the coin is also possible…….that is he blew me off for unprofessional behavior.         Moral of the story: Don’t screw up the small stuff.

Quality Still Counts

Don’t be fooled by the high number of movie professionals that are on the mailing lists of these online  services, for you still have to have your writing skills down pat, if you want to connect with the film industry. These skills include writing a good query letter, as well as a good movie script. Surprisingly, writing a good query letter might be the most difficult and the most important of these two tasks. Though only a page long, these letters have to be right on. Good karma and Zen enlightenment are a must if you are to succeed with this task.

One More Thing

And then there are those minute, little things called Loglines and Taglines. Consider these the Haiku of screenwriting, for a good one  can go a long way in selling the story.

A Guide To Screenwriting Blogs

kepler186f_artistconcept_0h600
NASA Illustration of a possible earth-sized planet in another galaxy

 

Striking Paydirt With Screenwriting

Screenwriting can be a lucrative occupation……..that is if you can sell your screenplay to Hollywood or other interested parties. But that’s a big “IF”. First you have to come up with a killer screenplay……..this might mean literally, for if there ain’t some dead bodies or corpses floating around, film producers might not be so interested. That’s not to say other types of films don’t have a chance, but for a breakout screenplay your 120 pages of script must be first rate or better.

 

Something To Consider 

For those writers who choose to go down this perilous path of writing, here is a list of blogs that might help you on your way……..or a more likely scenario……they might provide good reading, while you convert your unsold screenplay to novella or novel.

From Writer’s Digest

In the May/June WD issue, there were three screenwriting blogs included with the 101. They are as follows: MovieBytes, The Script Lab and the blog by John August. Movie Bytes is a good place to go for info on upcoming screenwriting contests. This site also contains mucho info on previously released movies. The Script Lab is another blog singled out by WD. They provide a wide cross-section of useful tips that includes many reviews and trailers.  John August is a commercially successful screewriting who promotes his blog with the slogan, “a ton of useful information”. This is not an understatement.

Some of My Favorites 

Here are the screenwriting blogs that I most commonly visit.

Screenwriting from IowaScott W. Smith really does live in Iowa, where he posts several times a week on various topics related to screenwriting. Just goes to show you don’t have to live in southern California to keep abreast of events in Hollywood.

The Bitter Script Reader – This guy has actually been reading Hollywood scripts for the last seven years. No wonder he’s bitter. To keep his true identity a secret, this irreverent commentator goes by the name of Zuul. His comments are fun to read, but I kind of miss the talking puppet. Maybe Zuul will bring back his animated sidekick soon.

The Black List Blog – The Black List is the digital equivalent to screenwriting agents. Even in this new century, you can still get an agent, but the best route for newbie writers trying to crack the big time is to get your script posted and read at the Black List. That in itself makes this a most interesting website and blog.

Inktip – Inktip is simular to the Black List in that it helps fledgling screewriters get there prospective hit movies out there. Membership is free and do receive a weekly listing on who is looking for what. Still a long shot, but just paying attention to what’s current could be helpful.

Screenwriting Goldmine – A British site that operates in much the same manner as inktips. Sign up and you’ll some info on what British producers are looking for in screenplays. If you can match your script to a producer’s request, you might get lucky.

And then there’s this new site called the Bitch Pack. Go there and judge for yourself.

 

 

 

Advertising changes with the times
Advertising changes with the times, from flickr

Sign of the Times

In recent years one of my most frequently-visited screenwriting blogs has been an irreverent site called “Just Effing Entertain Me”, run by an experienced insider, named Julie Gray. Right now, this particular blog has ceased, only to be replaced by a website promoting her consulting business. In April, Julie just started blogging again from the Middle East. You can read all about the screenwriter in her newfound home at Stories Without Borders.

Welcome To the Digital Age

Like everything else in today’s world, the business of writing a screenplay is changing all the time. Always remember good writing will find its voice…….somewhere, though it might be where you least expect it. So long for now.

Digital devices are everywhere, from Wikipedia, photo by Tomas Castelazo
Digital devices are everywhere, from Wikipedia, photo by Tomas Castelazo

 

There’s No Such Thing As An Original Story

Painting of Adam and Eve inside Abreha and Atsbeha Church, Ethiopia photo by Bernard Gagnon from Wikipedia
Painting of Adam and Eve inside Abreha and Atsbeha Church, Ethiopia
photo by Bernard Gagnon from Wikipedia

The Ancient Art of Storytelling

My guess is that storytelling has been around for a very long time, perhaps just about as long as the world’s oldest profession. Who knows the first story ever told may be directly located to the practice of the first profession. Anyway, stories  are very old, as exemplified by the pictured mural of Adam and Eve, one of the oldest stories in the bible. However, it is most likely storytelling predates some of the oldest biblical tales, for I’m sure that the ancient hunters and gathering had lots to say around the campfire at night.

Many modern tales can find their roots in the plays of William Shakespeare, painting of William Shakespeare by John Taylor
Many modern tales can find their roots in the plays of William Shakespeare, painting of William Shakespeare by John Taylor

Catchy Phrase

Today I’m stuck in Santa Fe, NM waiting for a bus, so I thought I would spend the day browsing the library. While doing so, I came across a book on screenplays written by a man named Wells Root and published in 1979. Thumbing through the book I was amazed as to how relevant the written passages were, even though, the most recently mentioned movie was the Midnight Cowboy, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. One of the chapters was titled, “There’s No Such Thing As An Original Movie’ and this, has now become the inspiration for this post. According to Mr. Root, there was a college professor who bet his students that they could not find a truly original screenplay or movie. Supposedly, the teacher never had to pay up on his challenge.

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, from Wikipedia
Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, from Wikipedia

Is Aristotle Still Important?

Aristotle and his three acts was in important in 1979 and is still important today. And thanks to a popular little book about screenwritng, called Save the Cat, Aristotle actually may be making a comeback among writers and storytellers. And somehow recent trends show that the three act formula first put forth by Aristotle way back when and perfected by Hollywood late in the 20th century is just as strong as ever. Furthermore, American movies have become so rigid in their structure that more experimentation and breakaways from the magic formula may be in order.

Illustration for Little Red Riding Hood by Walter Crane  from Wikipedia
Illustration for Little Red Riding Hood by Walter Crane from Wikipedia

36 Types of Stories

Since Wells Root was co-screenwriters for one of my favorite western comedies, Texas Across the River, I delved into his book as best I could. One of the more interesting ideas he espoused was the concept that stories had be broken down into 36 different types. This idea is nothing new, it’s just that a concrete number has not often assigned to the varieties of tall tales that a screenwriter may draw from. Even Wikipedia has devoted a page to the theory of story classification…… So there you go….that’s what I learned at the library today.

Good Old Fashioned Storyteller

Save the Cat
Blake Snyder uses this provocative image on the cover of his book on screenwriting, called Save the Cat

Can You Judge A Book By Its Cover?

Blake Snyder is a successful screenwriter, who has written a book, called Save the Cat. The cover has an eye-catching image of a cat hanging off the end of the rope. No doubt that the image is provocative, but can the words inside the book live up to the picture on the outside. Even though the manuscript takes a back-to-basics attitude, the information inside should help anyone involved with the strange and bizarre art of screenwriting, improve their craft.

horseheadir_hubble_1225
The Horsehead Nebula in Infrared from Hubble
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STSci/AURA)

Basic Premise

Since its publication in 2005, Save the Cat, is still considered to be a contemporary treatise on screenwriting. Interesting enough, the title comes from the  scenario, where the hero of a movie does something nice……. like save a cat. According to Blake Snyder, the author, every movie should have a “save the cat” moment, though nowadays, most movies fail to employ such a scene.

Glowing Eye Nebula
NGC 6751: The Glowing Eye Nebula
Image Credit: Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA; Processing – Donald Waid

Narrow Structure

Save the Cat presents a lot of good ideas like studying genre, reading screenplays and writing a good logline before you begin constructing your script. However the part that impressed me the most, was an explanation how a 120 page feature film script can be broken into three basic acts, just as outlined by Aristotle way back when. In Save the Cat, Snyder strongly suggest that you give extra weight to the second act, thus creating Act I (25 pages), Act II (60 pages) and Act III (25 pages). In turn, this will create a 110 page feature film, which according to the author is an ideal length for a screenplay. Most important are three points of interest, which Snyder has conveniently named the catalyst, the midpoint and the synthesis….and these should respectively at page 12, page 55 and page 85. And this folks….is your formula for writing a screenplay.

Aristotle_Altemps_Inv8575
Ludovisi Collection from the National museum of Rome

Coping With Reality

Screenplays really are strictly structured items though length can vary (slightly) and of course content is very important also. So how does one right a marketable script. That’s still a mystery to me, but Save the Cat does provide a fun read, if nothing more. Also it can make you the hit of a Hollywood party in case you find yourself in that location.

Monday Morning Writing Advice: Timely Quotes from Famous Authors

 The Southern Ring Nebula
NGC 3132: The Southern Ring Nebula
Image Credit: Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA; Processing – Donald Waid

Encountering Written Advice

More often than not successful writers, tend to make mostly practical suggestions to newbie writers. Commonly these witticisms contain such mundane advice as don’t use too many adverbs or leave out such over-used words as very, far out or nowadays. Fortunately, every now and then, a lucky writer sneaks in a tidbit of literary comment that transcends these basic grammatical axioms. For example, Stephen King’s classic line, “kill your darlings” has been most likely encountered by just about every practitioner of the English language on at least several occasions.

Following are some of my favorite comments by writers. You have probably heard of most of these guys and gals , but you may not be aware of their cherished little snippets of words. Hopefully, at least a few of these timely lines of wisdom will sink into your brain and create a microburst of energy within your gray matter.

neptunetriton_voyager_960
Crescent Neptune and Triton
Image Credit: Voyager 2, NASA

The List

    1. Start as close to the end as possible. by Kurt Vonnegut

    2. Employ an unreliable narrator, preferably one who doesn’t know he is insane and has no recollection of such events as digging into a grave to rip out the teeth of his recently departed lover. by Edgar Allan Poe (note: this comment has been falsely attributed to Edgar Allan Poe, but still ranks as good advice)

    3. Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever. by Ernst Lubitsch, screenwriter

    4. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go. by Billy Wilder, screenwriter

    5. It is always prudent to remember that one is not Tolstoy or Dickens. by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

    6. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. by George Orwell

    7. Try never get drunk outside yr own house by Jack Kerouac

    8. Remember there is no such thing as nonsense. By Andrew Motion

Saturn Hurricane
Saturn Hurricane
Image Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

In Conclusion

Every one’s probably heard of this Elmore Leornard quote, but I’ll include it anyway….Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

And last but not least! Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say. by Michael Moorcock