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Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Do You Learn This Week?

No one knows everything about writing or storytelling. No one. The best they can say is that they know more than most people. To become a writer is to become a constant student. You could write a 100 novels and a 50 screenplays and still learn something new. As writers we should be always open to new ideas and techniques. More than that we should be experimenting

So what did I learn this week?

Let’s start with @filmutopia who was the subject of last week’s #scriptchat. Clive developed an excellent character spreadsheet in Excel. It’s a great tool for creating characters but he uses it for more than that. He uses it generate screenplay plots. To quote him, “…it creates the plot from the pre-existing character conflicts and connections, I created in the spreadsheet.” In other words letting your characters steer your plot and story. I like this spreadsheet a lot. It’s detailed yet very quick and you can easily create a whole cast of character outlines in an evening. The only thing I would change is to add a line of dialogue and an action to the character traits. Dialogue and action is how the characters will be expressed ultimately. I think that will get them to leap off the spreadsheet and onto the page.

Now this sounds like a good tool for indie, edgy dramas and comedies, but what if you’re trying to write a high concept drama? Clive has that area covered with his “Quintessential” tag. To me at any rate “Quintessential” is the same as “Iconic.” So if you want to create a high concept commercial story concentrate your characters’ “Quintessential” tags.

Of course you could start with a concept and basic plot like I do, then apply the spreadsheet and then see what transpires. Nothing is written in stone, especially in screenwriting. The goal is to get a great script, not follow any one particular method religiously.

Elsewhere at Script Secrets, William Martell writes about Watering Your Plants. What he means is setting up, confirming and then paying off your plot points and character traits. He calls this process The Rule of 3 and then demonstrates how the movie Hancock was ruined by not following it. It really makes sense. The Rule of 3 comes from comedians. First you have to set up a behavior, then you confirm it’s still there, then BAM, the punchline which turns the behavior on its head.

It may seem mechanical and arbitrary but it really works. It’s almost like geometry. Between 2 points is a straight line. Between any 3 pts is a plane. In this case, mentioning something once then flipping it isn’t enough. Mention something more than three times and it gets repetitive. 3 just seems to work.

I’ve met and talked with Bill in the past and he’s a great guy. He’s like me, a plot and concept man. What’s interesting is that you can take his Rule of 3 and apply it to Clive’s Character Spreadsheet plotting. So your character is the Quintessential Northern British Bloke. Well you need to establish that bloke-iness in the first act, confirm it in the second, then have it pay off in the third with a twist of some kind. You can go right down the list of character tags if you want and practically fill out your entire screenplay with set ups, confirmations, and payoffs.

Finally over at SellingYourScreenplay and Go Into the Story, two people are asking for advice on how to sell a 175 and 187 page spec screenplay. Now I’ve made my thoughts on this pretty clear, but one of the posters is so passionate about his project. Here’s a quote:

Parallel to Stone’s 205 min. ‘JFK’, and Coppola’s 202 min. ‘Apocalypse Now’, there is a story - let’s call it ‘X’. X is the BIG story and X’s gotta be told, in order to storytell. BUT the even bigger story is the having kept X from being a big story in the first place AND what is interesting about X is only revealed through what is interesting about this bigger story - ‘Y’.

Now ‘Y’ is in itself a story, but what makes Y interesting is its relation to X in particular. So both X and Y must be told in order to tell the story of X in the first place. Let’s now call that story (where both X and Y are combined) XY. Both X and Y really happened and there is no better way to tell the story of X than by telling XY.

Y in itself is interesting enough to take on a life of its own as a story, but it would just be another (good) night at the movies, like De Niro’s 167 min. ‘The Good Shepherd’. X is also a good story by itself, but it would just be another good story without also telling the story of Y. Therefore the XY dilemma.

Add to that ‘Z’ - the protagonist/catalyst – without whom there would have been no X in the first place and you have one modern-day character-driven epic-story of Truth, aka XYZ, aka 187-page-script.

Imagine what Spike’s Malcolm X could have been if it was more about the whys than the whos; what Spielberg’s Schindler’s List would have been if it took place in America instead of Krakow. And do you recall American History X? Imagine that sort of character driven story with dialogue that speaks to a domestic audience spanning from “I Have a Dream-ers” to “Yes We Can-ers” and overseas generations that have questioned The American Way and The American Dream to this day.


Given the success of Avatar we're probably going to see a lot more 3 hour specs. Scott Meyers very politely suggests that the writer may have fallen too much in love with his own story. That’s something that’s real easy to do. I’m guilty of it myself quite often. It’s hard not to fall head over heels for your own project. This is your ticket to fame and fortune after all, or at least a “try us again with something else. Feel free to email us.” But you have to yourself back.

Be the student. Learn. You may be confident. You may believe. But at least pay attention to differing points of view.

Maybe you are on the verge of revolutionizing the industry. But chances are you didn’t get to that point without a lot of study. So study some more.


  1. What about a great premise and story? I don't start writing anything unless I am convinced in my own mind that the story is compelling. Doesn't character spring from that, or would you say that character comes first?
    I think that you can overcook things with screen writing, by absorbing far too much information. It gets in the way of writing. Maybe there comes a time when you have to trust your instincts and put all the books away and just write something.

  2. I'm still a big premise and story guy, but not everyone is. And it's always interesting to see the process of other writers.

    You never know. Something might click with you.


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