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.

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.

Throwing In the Towel

NGC 1999: South of Orion  Image Data: Subaru Telescope (NAOJ), Hubble Space Telescope,  Additional Color Data and Processing: Robert Gendler
NGC 1999: South of Orion
Image Data: Subaru Telescope (NAOJ), Hubble Space Telescope,
Additional Color Data and Processing: Robert Gendler

Confessions of a Failed Scriptwriter

Just last week, the crew over at Scriptshadow, posted a long post about what happens when after 11 years of hard work, you cannot sell a screenplay. The author is Randy Steinberg and his intent is not self-pity, but rather an honest attempt to pass on to other struggling screenwriters he learned from his own mistakes. Hopefully, by writing this article, Mr. Steinberg will be able to move on to something more constructive and satisfying to his own sense of well-being.

Image by H. Koppdelaney
Image by H. Koppdelaney

Throwing In the Towel

Though written several years this lively article by successful screenwriter, Terry Rossio, is a must read for anyone considering the calling of writing screenplays for Hollywood (or anyone else that might be interested). To me this lively rant is timeless, as I seem to reference the piece every other year or so. In case you haven’t heard of Terry Rossio, he along with his writing partner, Ted Elliott,  have written the scripts for such popular films as Shrek, Aladdin, Little Monsters, the Mask of Zorro and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Image by H. Koppdelaney
Image by H. Koppdelaney

Don’t Throw In the Towel

Steinberg’s blog post, which just went up last week, has already drawn quite a lot of buzz around the web. One writer, Daniel Gardina, referenced to another post by popular blogger, Nathan Bransford, titled Be Wary of Anyone Who Tries To Tell You There’s Only One Way to Find Successful Publication. It seems to me this is the attitude that Randy Steinberg ought to be suscribing to…….and perhaps by posting his long confession, he may eventually get to where he wants to go.

It’s Not All In L.A.

One attitude that seemed to surface a lot among readers, who follow the Scriptshadow blog….is that you have to move to Los Angeles to be successful as a screenwriter. For here in tinseltown, you will find all the agents, managers, producers and what-not that might discover your writing ability and help make your script a reality. Although being near Hollywood is certainly still important, I feel that in the digital age, being there is not so imperative. Everyday there seem to be more and film companies popping up in the various hinterlands across the U.S.A. For reference, just take a look at this blog.

Halloween in Vegas

A carved Jack O’lantern celebrates Halloween, photo from Wikipedia by Jackins

Vegas

For some strange reason, Halloween this year has me down and out in the city of Las Vegas Nevada, though not so down and out that I couldn’t afford a cheap motel room for a week (Vegas has lots of good offers in that category) and a night out on the town on All Hallows Eve. (that was last night Oct. 31) For somebody in my position, the choice is not hard to make….Head straight to Fremont St. in the downtown area and check out all the free shows. This includes the live music shows on stage, the street performers, the light show that comes up every hour from 6 p.m. till midnight and the constant parade of costumed partygoers that roam up and down the wide avenue that has mostly become a pedestrian walkway. And if you get thirsty, you can always go inside and buy a cheap beer. Then there are always the ever-present slot machines, which could conceivably pay for your night out. They almost did for me, but even so I enjoyed the evening thoroughly.

Fremont street and its canopy during the daytime, photo from Wikipedia by Mikerussell

The Call

During my night out on the town, I had a lot to celebrate and think about. For during that very afternoon I had received an e-mail

from an interested agent about a screenplay I had written about a year and a half ago and circulated through an equerry service back in May. And the strangest thing about all of this was that the person had a physical address and phone number right here in Las Vegas (Did she know I was in town for a few days?). So without any ado and with much excitement, I e-mailed back a reply complete with a brand new synopsis that I had worked two hours on. Today, I received the bad news, a rather lengthy rejection on why she was passing. Still, the brief rush of excitement made my day and at the same time I was glad I had resisted the urge to contact her directly by phone or personal appearance. (It was very tempting)

Las Vegas today at dusk, photo from Wikipedia by Ville Miettinen

Do e-query services work?

 

I’ll address this issue in more detail later, but my first attempt at this much-frowned-on method of querying

yielded surprisingly good results. Though the inquiries were few and far between, I achieved what I hadn’t been able to do by querying on my own … and that is find some  legitimate insiders in the film business to read my screenplays. No offer of representation came with these readings, but my limited success was a big improvement from my own direct query efforts.

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.