#WritingAdviceWednesday – Advice from Script Lab on Scenes

I agree with every word of the following post by Script Lab.  Writers– take this to heart!

Scenes can come in all shapes and sizes: a one-sentence establishing, a half-page aftermath, a three-page reversal, the list goes on. And clearly there’s a lot that goes into crafting a great scene: start late; get out early; maintain conflict; keep lines of dialogue brief; keep action paragraphs short; maximize white space; avoid “I” and block pages; incorporate subtext and indirection; create audience connection through suspense, mystery, and revelation; and show the story in a visually interesting way, all while writing with a unique original voice. But that’s all execution.

Screenplays are built on “What happens next?” and, therefore, the root of every scene comes down to two fundamental objectives: (1) moving the story forward and/or (2) revealing character. The very best scenes do both.

But here’s the hard part, and something I call the 100% rule: if you’re not 100% positive that at least one of these two scene objectives is necessary, you must absolutely kill it! Even if you love it, even if it’s funny, or witty, or clever, if it doesn’t move the story forward or reveal some essential complexity of character, you simply do not need it.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Incremental Progress to Write One Novel or Screenplay a Year

doctorow_150x224In The One-Hour Screenwriter and my upcoming Thriller and The Power of Truth book, I recommend writing for one hour a day.  Cory Doctorow, an extremely prolific writer, has his schedule down to 20 minutes a day.

Cory is co-parenting new father who writes at least a book per year, half-a-dozen columns a month, ten or more blog posts a day, plus assorted novellas and stories and speeches.

Here is his take on incremental progress and he recommends:

Short, regular work schedule
When I’m working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I’m working on it.
Leave yourself a rough edge
When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work.
Don’t research
Researching isn’t writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don’t. … type “TK” where your fact should go, as in “The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite.” “TK” appears in very few English words … so a quick search through your document for “TK” will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards.
Don’t be ceremonious
Forget advice about finding the right atmosphere to coax your muse into the room. … You can put up with noise/silence/kids/discomfort/hunger for 20 minutes.
http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2009/01/cory-doctorow-writing-in-age-of.html
1. A short, regular work schedule
When I’m working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I’m working on it (for 20 minutes a day).
.
2. Leaving yourself a rough edge
When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work.
.
3. Don’t research
Researching isn’t writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don’t. … type “TK” where your fact should go, as in “The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite.” “TK” appears in very few English words … so a quick search through your document for “TK” will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards.
.
4. Don’t be ceremonious
Forget advice about finding the right atmosphere to coax your muse into the room. … You can put up with noise/silence/kids/discomfort/hunger for 20 minutes. (For those 20 minutes all you do is write and don’t all ANY distractions in.)

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Average Is Over

Friedman_New-articleInlineI saw this in an Op Ed piece by Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times and I believe it applies as much to writing in this market as to any other kind of job:

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

Okay– so why are there so many average or sub-par movies around?  Because those all come attached with Big Names.  If you are trying to get noticed today you either need Big Name attachments or an outstanding script.  A good script won’t make it any more.  A great script probably won’t either.  You need an outstanding script.  You need to be, in sports terms, a number one draft pick.

It’s more important than ever to hone your craft.  Be meticulous in your presentation. Be fresh. Be original. And don’t fall into common kinds of errors that derail your story enough to make it a “pass” rather than a “highly recommend.”

I’ve distilled everything I know about story analysis into a short eBook.  It will be my first Kindle, Amazon, iBooks, Sony Reader, Nook publication.  It’s priced at $4.99 for an introductory time.  Let me know if you’d like to be on the pre-order list. You can contact me through the site or leave a comment– I can get your email address on the back end.  It’s not published in the comment.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Curiosity and Rigor: The Keys to Success

I’ve just discovered a wonderful new website called The 99%.  One of the videos on the site is a discussion by the photographer and now filmmaker Andrew Zuckerman on creativity, wisdom, curiosity and success.  This is really worth your time and may even change the way you think about success–

Andrew Zuckerman: On Curiosity, Rigor, and Learning As You Go from 99% on Vimeo.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Words of Wisdom from Francis Ford Coppola

francis-ford-coppola-01“Always make your work be personal. And, you never have to lie.

If you lie, you will only trip yourself up. You will always get caught in a lie.

It is very important for an artist not to lie, and most important is not to lie to yourself.

There are some questions that are inappropriate to ask, and rather than lie, I will not answer them because it’s not a question I accept.

So many times we are asked things in our work or in life that you want to lie, and all you have to do is say, ‘No, that is an improper question.’

So when you get into a habit of not lying when you are writing, directing, or making a film, that will carry your personal conviction into your work.

And, in a society where you say you are very free but you’re not entirely free, you have to try.

There is something we know that’s connected with beauty and truth. There is something ancient.

We know that art is about beauty, and therefore it has to be about truth.” ~ Francis Ford Coppola

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Top Ten Writing Mistakes

42-FE4-SuzanneLieuranceThis is a great post from Suzanne Lieurance. She is an instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature and reads hundreds of manuscripts over the course of a year. Every thing she writes about below is relevant to screenwriting. She tackles the mistake like David Letterman– inching up to the number one mistake.

A note about POV below– Even in a large ensemble drama or comedy there is someone who is “first among equals.”  Make sure that person has a complete story arc and is driving the story for the other characters.

10) No Clear POV Character– Children tend to relate to the POV character in a story. This is the person they will root for. Make it clear right from the start whose story is being told. Even if you have two main characters (twins, for example), you need to pick just one of these kids to be your POV character. And, it should go without saying, when writing for children, make sure your POV character IS a kid – even if Grandma has a big part in your story.

9) Multiple Points of View– Unlike stories for adults, stories for children are generally told from only one POV. It isn’t difficult to maintain a single point of view once you get the hang of it. Just remember– if you are “showing” everything from your main character’s point of view, then he or she has to be present for everything that happens. I see stories all the time where the POV character suddenly leaves the room. Yikes! If your POV character wasn’t there to see or hear what went on, then we can’t see or hear it either.

8) Telling instead of Showing– Read a good story and chances are there is a lot of action and dialogue (showing) with minimal stretches of straight narrative (telling). Too much narrative and the story sounds like a summary. Readers don’t want a summary. They want scenes with action and dialogue that make them feel they are actually experiencing what is going on. So “show” as much as possible of your story through action and dialogue.

7) Overuse of Adjectives, Adverbs, and Other Unnecessary Words– Do you really need to say someone “whispered quietly” Or “shouted loudly” Or, my favorite– she “nodded her head”? What else could she nod? Or, she “shrugged her shoulders”– she certainly wouldn’t shrug her foot!

6) Dialogue That is Not Punctuated Properly– Get a grammar book to learn how to punctuate dialogue properly. But, most importantly, remember to change paragraphs each time the speaker changes. I read manuscripts all the time where three or four characters are speaking, yet the paragraph never changes. Just imagine how confusing that is to the reader!

5) Long Timeframes– I know Harry Potter takes place over several years. But, the story also takes place through several books. Most children’s writers start out writing stories for children’s magazines or they want to write picture books for very young children. Either way, the timeframe in these stories should be rather short– a couple of hours or a day or two. If your story takes place over a couple of weeks or (gulp!) a couple of years, then you need to shorten the timeframe.

4) No Narrative “Hook” for the Reader– I know what you’re asking– “What is a narrative hook?” Well, that’s simple. It’s just an opening sentence or two that “hooks” the reader and makes him or her want to continue reading to find out what happens.

3) Dialogue That Doesn’t Sound Real– Listen to any child or teenager and you’ll find out that much of what kids and teens say (at least to each other) tends to sound like a series of grunts. So don’t have the child or teen in your story use words like “shall,” or never use contractions. If you do, the dialogue will sound too formal and your work will not have a child’s or teen’s voice.

2) Adults Who Step In to Save the Day for the Child– I know what you’re thinking. Parents and other well-meaning adults DO step in all the time to save the day for kids. So why can’t they do it in stories for children? The answer to that is– because children don’t want to read stories like that. Stories for children have strong children (or children who eventually become strong throughout the course of the story) as characters. This empowers the children who read these stories. They figure, if the POV character can solve his own problems then maybe they can too.

Now. Drum roll here.

The number one mistake new writers make in their stories for children is

1) No real conflict– There’s no story problem. Your POV character needs to face some big problem right at the start of the story. Then, he or she needs to struggle and struggle with this problem as he/she tries to solve it. That is, things need to keep getting worse and worse until finally the POV character is able to solve the problem (or at least resolve it) and change or grow somehow in the process. Without a story problem you have what editors like to call “an incident,” and editors don’t publish incidents. They publish stories.

You can read the whole post here– http://www.absolutewrite.com/specialty_writing/top_ten.htm

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Oscar Nominated PDF Screenplays Here

oscar-nominations-2010-list-and-scheduleRaindance, a wonderful screenwriting resource, has posted the 2011 Oscar nominated screenplays for both original screenplay and adapted screenplay.  You can download them in PDF form from their website here: http://www.raindance.org/site/index.php?aid=7122

So, what is the difference between the two categories ‘Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen’ and ‘Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published’? Simply put, the former is a script that was written purely from the screenwriter’s or screenwriters’ imagination, and is original source material that has not be taken from any other previously written materials and mediums, while the latter tends to be an adaptation of another published work, such as a novel (i.e. ‘Winter’s Bone’) or comic book, or is based on a true story (such as ‘The Social Network’ or ‘127 Hours’).

The nominated 2010 screenplays can be found on the Raindance site here:  http://www.raindance.org/site/index.php?id=474,5334,0,0,1,0

#WritingAdviceWednesday – The Coen Brothers on Screenwriting

600full-joel-and-ethan-coen-1I always love to hear screenwriters talk about their craft and the details of how they work and think.  Here is some sage advice from the Coen Brothers.

Openness to bad notes that generate good ideas is the key takeaway here.  I always tell writers– Don’t listen to the specific note.  The specific note is an attempt to be helpful.  Listen to what the note-giver thinks would be accomplished by doing what is suggested.  Listen for what is missing emotionally that generated the specific note.  If you address the underlying deficiency– how you do it, specifically, usually isn’t that important.  There is something problematic underlying the note– however inane or off-the-mark the specific suggestion might be.

THR: What’s your daily work routine?
JC: We have a daily work routine in the sense that we come into the office, but I would call it a daily routine as opposed to a daily work routine. We don’t necessarily do any work when we get here.
THR: How do you deal with notes?The King’s Speech writer David Seidler told me a producer’s dumb idea to have a character in prison have sex with a nurse made him come up with a different, good sex idea that fit the script’s characters.
JC: I don’t think that’s a dumb idea, by the way.
EC: In the silent films, they had a story conference where they actually brought in a guy called the “Wildie,” which was a lunatic, not a figurative lunatic but a guy —
JC: Someone from the insane asylum who’d sit at the story table.
EC: He’d interrupt with just insane eruptions that had nothing to do with anything, and the writers would go, “Oh, yes, right. We could, y’know…”
THR: Where was this?
EC: This was at the Max Roach Studio.
JC: No, Hal Roach. Max Roach didn’t need a Wildie.
EC: You can sometimes treat studio notes that way too. Although sometimes you get studio notes where you go, “OK.” Sometimes – well, a good idea is a good idea. You don’t want to be snobby about where you take them from.
JC: Even if it comes from the studio.
EC: Even if they’re bad ideas, that doesn’t mean they’re not useful. That’s very true.
THR: What’s your daily work routine?
JC: We have a daily work routine in the sense that we come into the office, but I would call it a daily routine as opposed to a daily work routine. We don’t necessarily do any work when we get here.
THR: How do you deal with notes?The King’s Speech writer David Seidler told me a producer’s dumb idea to have a character in prison have sex with a nurse made him come up with a different, good sex idea that fit the script’s characters.
JC: I don’t think that’s a dumb idea, by the way.
EC: In the silent films, they had a story conference where they actually brought in a guy called the “Wildie,” which was a lunatic, not a figurative lunatic but a guy —
JC: Someone from the insane asylum who’d sit at the story table.
EC: He’d interrupt with just insane eruptions that had nothing to do with anything, and the writers would go, “Oh, yes, right. We could, y’know…”
THR: Where was this?
EC: This was at the Max Roach Studio.
JC: No, Hal Roach. Max Roach didn’t need a Wildie.
EC: You can sometimes treat studio notes that way too. Although sometimes you get studio notes where you go, “OK.” Sometimes – well, a good idea is a good idea. You don’t want to be snobby about where you take them from.
JC: Even if it comes from the studio.
EC: Even if they’re bad ideas, that doesn’t mean they’re not useful. That’s very true.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Screenwriting Iconoclast & Genius

Dr. Howard Suber, UCLA Film School

I’ve written before about Dr. Howard Suber.  Pretty much everything I know about pattern recognition, story theory and character development comes from his classes at UCLA and further research on topics he had covered.  Here he gives an amazing account of how “conventional wisdom” is often wrong.  This article first appeared on MovieOutline.com

.

.

Everybody in Hollywood knows the top three rules of screenwriting:
1. Write what you know.
2. Films must have a happy ending.
3. Films must have three acts.
But few people know what these rules all have in common:
They are all wrong.
Rule #1: Write What You Know
There is no writer alive who has not been advised, “Write what you know.” And there are few writers who have not, in the course of following this advice, spent months or years producing a personally cathartic but boringly predictable work.
Too often, writers take “write what you know” to mean “write what you’ve lived.” Yet, few writers lead dramatic lives; if they did, they wouldn’t have much time or energy for writing. Writing what you know, therefore, can constrict a writer to a very narrow and uninteresting perspective.
What you “know,” if you have any creativity at all, is not just what you have experienced. Paul Schrader had no experience as a pimp or a taxi driver when he wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver. He had studied to be a minister at Calvin College, a small fundamentalist school in Michigan, and earned his M.A. degree in academic film studies at UCLA writing about the spiritual dimensions of the work of the Danish director Carl Theodore Dryer.=
Mario Puzo wasn’t a made man or even a member of a Mafia family, he was a novelist looking for a commercial hit, and what he knew about the Mafia when he wrote The Godfather came mostly from his research in the New York Public library.
George Lucas grew up in rural Modesto, California, where there were no space ships, hyper-drives or even robots. What he knew about “The Force” he got largely from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces and popular studies of comparative religions.
If all that a writer “knows” is his own personal experience, it will never be broad enough to sustain him throughout a productive career. Experience, in itself, is never enough. The more one relies on it exclusively, the more one runs the risk of restricting one’s imagination, which is where most creativity originates.
Rule #2: Films Must Have a Happy Ending
Here are some memorable popular films that do not have a happy ending:
Amadeus
American Graffiti
Annie Hall
Apocalypse Now
Bonnie and Clyde
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Casablanca
Chinatown
Citizen Kane
A Clockwork Orange
The Deer Hunter
Doctor Zhivago
Double Indemnity
Dr. Strangelove
E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial
Easy Rider
Frankenstein
The French Connection
From Here to Eternity
The Godfather
The Godfather: Part II
Gone with the Wind
The Grapes of Wrath
High Noon
King Kong
Lawrence of Arabia
The Maltese Falcon
The Manchurian Candidate
Midnight Cowboy
Mutiny on the Bounty
Network
On the Waterfront
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Patton
Platoon
Psycho
Pulp Fiction
Raging Bull
Rebel Without a Cause
Schindler’s List
The Searchers
Shane
The Silence of the Lambs
A Streetcar Named Desire
Sunset Boulevard
Taxi Driver
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Unforgiven
Vertigo
The Wild Bunch
The press, audiences, and people in the film industry itself all seem to believe that, to be a success, a Hollywood film must have a happy ending, but as this list demonstrates, this is not born out by the evidence. While comedies and musicals generally end happily, a very large proportion of the most memorable popular films (those that were popular in their own day and have remained popular) do not.
The endings of the vast majority of memorable popular films consist of Pyrrhic victories, in which the central characters have gone through such trauma, loss, pain, sacrifice, and suffering that calling their final state “happy” would be a maddeningly insensitive joke.
The Declaration of Independence and every politician who invokes it may speak of the “pursuit of happiness,” but happiness has nothing to do with being a hero; in fact, happiness is something heroes learn to live without.
Rule #3: Films Must Have Three Acts
What is the authority for this rule? Surely, not empirical observation, for the history of drama and film is filled with great dramatic and filmic works that cannot be said to have three acts. So, why in recent years have so many people tried to force films into this Procrustean bed?
The authority most often cited for the “three act rule” is that oldest of dramatic theorists, Aristotle. In his other works, Aristotle often obsessively numbered things, so had he observed three acts in the works of the great Greek playwrights, surely he would have reported it. But none of the plays Aristotle was familiar with had acts in the modern sense of the term. Not surprisingly, therefore, Aristotle said absolutely nothing about an act structure – and certainly nothing about three acts.
Aristotle said that drama has a beginning, middle, and end, but he did not make a big deal about it, which is a good thing because when one looks at the statement it is so self-evident that one has to wonder why such a great thinker bothered to make it or why his students thought it worthy of preserving for posterity.
World War II, this article, and your last bowel movement all have a beginning, middle, and end. Everything that takes place in time or space has a beginning, middle, and end. But this is not the same thing as three acts.
Some people suggest that an alternative to three acts is the five act structure they ascribe to Shakespeare. But a large proportion of Shakespeare’s works did not have such a structure – it wasn’t until nearly a hundred years after his death that a publisher decided to impose the five act structure on all of his plays. So, neither the three nor the five act structures came from the revered source so often claimed for them.
The three act structure was invented two thousand years after Aristotle, when Ibsen and other nineteenth-century dramatists found that their audiences – unlike those in Periclean Athens – were unable to sit still for the entire duration of a full-length play.
In Ibsen’s theater and most theatrical works since, the audience is aware of acts because the curtain comes down, the house lights come up, and they get a chance to go to the bathroom. In film, the curtains don’t come down, the houselights don’t come up, and anyone who goes to the bathroom has to miss whatever keeps running on the screen. No one in the audience knows about “acts.” Greek, Elizabethan, and contemporary film audiences have not needed and as far as we can tell have never cared about the act structure that so many people say the “rules” demand.
It is useful, of course to remember the self-evident fact that things have a beginning, middle, and end, but is difficult to explain why so many people think this is the same as three acts, or why so many people make up rules about how long they should be and what should take place within them, especially when the results of such rule-making all too often resembles painting by the numbers.
Rules and Writing
What I have learned from more than forty years of teaching a continuous stream of students at UCLA who have gone on to be successful film and television makers is that film storytelling is one of the most difficult of all art forms, and that it usually takes years to become competent, let alone to master it. Such mastery comes not from slavishly following forms and formulas, but from learning the psychology of storytelling, which is ultimately the psychology of human beings.
About Howard Suber
Howard Suber has taught thousands of aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters over more than 40 years on the faculty of UCLA’s film school. Recipient of a Distinguished Teaching Award and a Life Achievement Award, Howard recently distilled his handouts from more than 65 different courses into his book The Power of Film.

Everybody in Hollywood knows the top three rules of screenwriting:

1. Write what you know.

2. Films must have a happy ending.

3. Films must have three acts.

But few people know what these rules all have in common:

They are all wrong.

Rule #1: Write What You Know

There is no writer alive who has not been advised, “Write what you know.” And there are few writers who have not, in the course of following this advice, spent months or years producing a personally cathartic but boringly predictable work.

Too often, writers take “write what you know” to mean “write what you’ve lived.” Yet, few writers lead dramatic lives; if they did, they wouldn’t have much time or energy for writing. Writing what you know, therefore, can constrict a writer to a very narrow and uninteresting perspective.

What you “know,” if you have any creativity at all, is not just what you have experienced. Paul Schrader had no experience as a pimp or a taxi driver when he wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver. He had studied to be a minister at Calvin College, a small fundamentalist school in Michigan, and earned his M.A. degree in academic film studies at UCLA writing about the spiritual dimensions of the work of the Danish director Carl Theodore Dryer.=

Mario Puzo wasn’t a made man or even a member of a Mafia family, he was a novelist looking for a commercial hit, and what he knew about the Mafia when he wrote The Godfather came mostly from his research in the New York Public library.

George Lucas grew up in rural Modesto, California, where there were no space ships, hyper-drives or even robots. What he knew about “The Force” he got largely from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces and popular studies of comparative religions.

If all that a writer “knows” is his own personal experience, it will never be broad enough to sustain him throughout a productive career. Experience, in itself, is never enough. The more one relies on it exclusively, the more one runs the risk of restricting one’s imagination, which is where most creativity originates.

Rule #2: Films Must Have a Happy Ending

Here are some memorable popular films that do not have a happy ending:

Amadeus

American Graffiti

Annie Hall

Apocalypse Now

Bonnie and Clyde

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Casablanca

Chinatown

Citizen Kane

A Clockwork Orange

The Deer Hunter

Doctor Zhivago

Double Indemnity

Dr. Strangelove

E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial

Easy Rider

Frankenstein

The French Connection

From Here to Eternity

The Godfather

The Godfather: Part II

Gone with the Wind

The Grapes of Wrath

High Noon

King Kong

Lawrence of Arabia

The Maltese Falcon

The Manchurian Candidate

Midnight Cowboy

Mutiny on the Bounty

Network

On the Waterfront

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Patton

Platoon

Psycho

Pulp Fiction

Raging Bull

Rebel Without a Cause

Schindler’s List

The Searchers

Shane

The Silence of the Lambs

A Streetcar Named Desire

Sunset Boulevard

Taxi Driver

To Kill a Mockingbird

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Unforgiven

Vertigo

The Wild Bunch

The press, audiences, and people in the film industry itself all seem to believe that, to be a success, a Hollywood film must have a happy ending, but as this list demonstrates, this is not born out by the evidence. While comedies and musicals generally end happily, a very large proportion of the most memorable popular films (those that were popular in their own day and have remained popular) do not.

The endings of the vast majority of memorable popular films consist of Pyrrhic victories, in which the central characters have gone through such trauma, loss, pain, sacrifice, and suffering that calling their final state “happy” would be a maddeningly insensitive joke.

The Declaration of Independence and every politician who invokes it may speak of the “pursuit of happiness,” but happiness has nothing to do with being a hero; in fact, happiness is something heroes learn to live without.

Rule #3: Films Must Have Three Acts

What is the authority for this rule? Surely, not empirical observation, for the history of drama and film is filled with great dramatic and filmic works that cannot be said to have three acts. So, why in recent years have so many people tried to force films into this Procrustean bed?

The authority most often cited for the “three act rule” is that oldest of dramatic theorists, Aristotle. In his other works, Aristotle often obsessively numbered things, so had he observed three acts in the works of the great Greek playwrights, surely he would have reported it. But none of the plays Aristotle was familiar with had acts in the modern sense of the term. Not surprisingly, therefore, Aristotle said absolutely nothing about an act structure – and certainly nothing about three acts.

Aristotle said that drama has a beginning, middle, and end, but he did not make a big deal about it, which is a good thing because when one looks at the statement it is so self-evident that one has to wonder why such a great thinker bothered to make it or why his students thought it worthy of preserving for posterity.

World War II, this article, and your last bowel movement all have a beginning, middle, and end. Everything that takes place in time or space has a beginning, middle, and end. But this is not the same thing as three acts.

Some people suggest that an alternative to three acts is the five act structure they ascribe to Shakespeare. But a large proportion of Shakespeare’s works did not have such a structure – it wasn’t until nearly a hundred years after his death that a publisher decided to impose the five act structure on all of his plays. So, neither the three nor the five act structures came from the revered source so often claimed for them.

The three act structure was invented two thousand years after Aristotle, when Ibsen and other nineteenth-century dramatists found that their audiences – unlike those in Periclean Athens – were unable to sit still for the entire duration of a full-length play.

In Ibsen’s theater and most theatrical works since, the audience is aware of acts because the curtain comes down, the house lights come up, and they get a chance to go to the bathroom. In film, the curtains don’t come down, the houselights don’t come up, and anyone who goes to the bathroom has to miss whatever keeps running on the screen. No one in the audience knows about “acts.” Greek, Elizabethan, and contemporary film audiences have not needed and as far as we can tell have never cared about the act structure that so many people say the “rules” demand.

It is useful, of course to remember the self-evident fact that things have a beginning, middle, and end, but is difficult to explain why so many people think this is the same as three acts, or why so many people make up rules about how long they should be and what should take place within them, especially when the results of such rule-making all too often resembles painting by the numbers.

Rules and Writing

What I have learned from more than forty years of teaching a continuous stream of students at UCLA who have gone on to be successful film and television makers is that film storytelling is one of the most difficult of all art forms, and that it usually takes years to become competent, let alone to master it. Such mastery comes not from slavishly following forms and formulas, but from learning the psychology of storytelling, which is ultimately the psychology of human beings.

About Howard Suber

Howard Suber has taught thousands of aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters over more than 40 years on the faculty of UCLA’s film school. Recipient of a Distinguished Teaching Award and a Life Achievement Award, Howard recently distilled his handouts from more than 65 different courses into his book The Power of Film.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – How to Use Byron Katie’s Four Questions

9254764_galMADRID

Yesterday I posted Byron Katie’s four questions.  These questions get at the fear and fearful thinking that causes personal suffering.  As many of you know the best definition of fear I have ever heard is:  “Fear is the anticipation of grief.”  Anticipating something often makes it true– That’s where the saying “a self-fulfilling prophecy” comes from. Here is how to use the questions in fictional character development:

1.  Is it true? Every character has a specific view of the world, of themselves and of their role in the role.  This is based on the person’s Character Type.  These beliefs and or philosophies limit the character in some profound way.  For example, a Power of Truth character believes that the world is fundamentally uncertain.  These characters believe life is filled with hidden pitfalls, secret agendas and you can’t really trust in or believe anything.

When operating out of fear these character doubt everyone and everything.  They don’t even trust themselves– second-guessing every decision, doubting themselves and others.  Mickey Sachs (Woody Allen)  in Hannah and Her Sisters at his most anxious neurotic state is a great comic example of the Power of Truth Character Type.  Mickey says:

“…I really hit bottom.  You know, I just felt that in a Godless universe, I didn’t want to go on living.  Now I happen to own this rifle which I loaded, believe it or not, and pressed to my forehead.”
“And I remember thinking… I’m gonna kill myself.  Then I thought… What if I’m wrong? What if there is a God?  I mean after all, nobody really knows. But then I thought, no.  You know,  maybe is not good enough.  I want  certainty or nothing.”

“…I really hit bottom.  You know, I just felt that in a Godless universe, I didn’t want to go on living.  Now I happen to own this rifle which I loaded, believe it or not, and pressed to my forehead.”

“And I remember thinking… I’m gonna kill myself.  Then I thought… What if I’m wrong? What if there is a God?  I mean after all, nobody really knows. But then I thought, no.  You know,  maybe is not good enough.  I want  certainty or nothing.”

Mickey nearly shoots himself but the gun slides off his forehead and he escapes in the resulting mayhem.  He  run into the street, walks for hours and then retreats into a movie theater where a Marx Brother’s movie is playing.

2: Can you absolutely know it’s true? In a climatic moment, Mickey realizes he can’t be absolutely certain there is no God.  He says:
“…I went upstairs to the balcony, and I sat down and, you know, the movie was a film that I’d seen many times in my life since I was a kid, and I always loved it.  And, you know, I’m watching these people up on the screen, and I started getting hooked on the film, you know?”
.
“…And I started to think how can you even think of killing yourself? I mean, isn’t it so stupid?  Look at all the people up there on the screen.  You know, they’re real funny, and, and what if the worst is true?”
.
“…What if there’s no God, and you only go around once and that’s it?  Well, you know, don’t you want to be part of the experience?  You know, what the hell, it’s not all a drag.”
3: How do you react—what happens—when you believe that thought? When Mickey believes there is no real certainty he fells anxious, depressed and self-destructive.  When he doubts everything he wants to kill himself.
.
4: Who would you be without the thought? Without obsessing about certainty or the lack of it, Mickey can begin to enjoy his life, relax and be more open, fun-loving and tolerant of ambiguity.  He says:
I’m thinking to myself, geez, I should stop ruining my life… searching for answers I’m never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts.  And… I mean, you know, maybe there is something. Nobody really knows.  I know, I know maybe is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that’s the best we have. And… then, I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.”
Absolutely nothing changed but Mickey’s attitude.   When he let go of his obsessive thoughts, based on his fears and narrow world view, he became more comfortable with uncertainty and more available to life and it’s enjoyments.
.
Byron Katie’s process is another way of looking at the Leap of Faith described in the Character Map eBook.  Every character must, at some point, let go of their self-limiting view of the world and of themselves.  This is the only way to make the transformation that is so scary but so emotionally satisfying.