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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Opening with Jekyll

Look at this opening five minutes from the BBC miniseries Jekyll.

It’s is a marvelous, entertaining five minutes of television and it’s nearly all exposition. This scene is a real text book case for aspiring writers, especially those in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genres, on how to give information while at the same time creating drama and entertainment.

The writer here was faced a number of challenges. He had to introduce two main characters, well THREE main characters really. He has to spell out the main concept and the conflict both of which are a little complicated. To recap, a modern day man who is the descendant of the real Dr. Jekyll has a split personality and can transform into a superhuman Mr. Hyde. He hires a psychologist to help him monitor his Hyde persona and he is giving her the details of the uneasy truce they live under. He has to establish the main character of Tom Jackman, the supporting character of Catherine and, although he doesn’t actually appear in this scene, the character of Mr. Hyde.

The writer doesn’t do anything fancy. He just lays it all out and we’re on our way. What he does a great job of is creating a dramatic circumstance which makes it necessary for Jackman to recap all this information. He’s hiring a new assistant and needs to get her up to speed. This isn’t any ordinary job interview. There’s a real chance Hyde might kill her. He also he creates a real sense of dread about the character of Mr. Hyde. That chair with the straps (a terrific opening image) creates a sense of unease. How could all these precautions be necessary?

That chair isn’t just a great image, but it spells out clearly the main conflict of the show, the struggle between Jackman and Hyde. This is something new writers should really study. You’ll progress a lot faster if you practice this kind of visual shorthand in your scripts.

Finally what really makes this scene is that Stefan Moffat really takes the time to get inside his characters and really write from his perspective. Jackman is worried but at the same time this is all routine for him. Catherine is amused and mildly flirtatious. There’s a hint of attraction between these two, making this more personal and not such a dry emotionless scene. These are probably two of the duller characters in the story yet their scene here is riveting.

Then Moffat follows up with this next five minutes.

Perfect delivery of the promise. We meet Hyde and he’s even more awesome than we were lead to believe. And just when we thought we had her down, Catherine reveals she might have another agenda. Really your goal in the first ten pages is to blow the reader away. If this were in a contest I honestly wouldn’t read past the first ten pages. Automatic to the next round. If I were reading for a company this would go to the top of my “read thoroughly” pile.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What a Vicious Takedown of Attack of the Clones can teach us about Screenwriting

He’s at it again. The RedLetterMedia guy is doing his impression of Ted Levine from Silence of the Lambs and taking a hammer to the next entry in the Star Wars prequels. Like the others it’s a hoot and even the serial killer jokes are getting better (which is to say they no longer make you squirm as much) But besides the jokes what really makes these videos great is they have real insight into where these films went wrong. Me and my brother watched these together and afterward he said, “I always knew these films were no good, but this guy really puts into words why I hate them so much.” I concur.

I also noticed that nearly all the complaints at least have something to do with the scripts penned by Lucas himself. As writers we should pay attention. I’ve always said you can learn more from a bad movie than you can from a good one. So let’s start learning shall we.

Flesh eating roach jokes aside he covers a lot of GREAT points in the first part. Starting off with a relatable character. Show us the characters and their relationships instead of telling us. Make sure everything has internal logic. And, seemingly contradicting the earlier advice, take time in the beginning to explain and set things up. In other words show the character but explain the vital information. In this one Lucas tells the relationships and skips over the vital information.

He doesn’t mention it but this part really touches on research on really knowing what you’re writing about even if it is a fantasy. How can you write a political thriller if you know nothing about politics? Again the internal logic is severely lacking. But Lucas also fails to create human drama as well. He even sounds sterile when describing this “doomed romance.” If you can’t get a little teary eyed talking about your own story then don’t expect it to hit anyone else in the heart. So failure on both the bog political plot and the small intimate love story. Not a good sign.

Then we move into a failed action plot. Again, internal logic. This whole sequence was written by a FX animator not a real writer. I shouldn’t say that, most animators I know are pretty good storytellers. But you get the idea. When you’re writing a scene of actual physical conflict you have to have them act at least half smart. And you have to keep your characters in character. The impulsive character makes the impulsive actions.

Ah, love. All I can say here is never take audience sympathies for granted. Just because you’re writing a romance and hit every Harlequin cliché in the book doesn’t mean your story has any real emotion in it. And while there’s no hard and fast rules for creating sympathies a good place to start is keeping the characters true to themselves and have them act accordingly. And don’t get me started on the “wish I could wish away my feelings” line. Oh and never let your kids name your characters. Kit Fisto.

Yeah, when you need two characters to fall in love and marry in 3 DAYS you don’t have any room for errors. And don’t talk about sand. Or mass murder. In really simple terms (which admittedly are the only terms I can write romance) you have to give the characters a reason to fall in love and a reason to overlook their faults.

This is more of a directing/casting problem. And I have stressed that you have to treat your projects as products that will have to be marketed, but obviously you can go too far. But if you are writing for a star you have to make sure you write to that star. But he has a great point at the end of this segment about how you can only include so many elements and still really be general audience friendly.

He hits on the curse of the CGI period. FX are now so easy they’re no longer special. Has nobody heard about going to the well once too often? We’ve gained incredible ability in visuals but we’re quickly forgetting the beauty of mystery. And does he nail the bit on screenwriting logic in the scene with the kids. Purpose of the scene dictates how that scene is written.

This point in the beginning here is nearly an epidemic in big budget movies. Again we’ve let our ability to create anything on the screen drain away all the tension. It’s my biggest complaint against most of today’s summer movies. There’s no consequences, no impact, no pain to any of this action. Action hurts. Remember Indiana Jones getting shot in the arm? That scene is nearly 30 years old and it still makes you wince when you see it. Take a look at those light saber duels. Any wincing there?

Pretty much just wraps things up in a nice little package of how bigger isn’t better. And things aren’t getting any better. CGI isn’t going anywhere. So we writers really have to know our crap. Our plots, our characters, our stories have to be real and from the heart. Because if that’s not on the page, there’s no way they can put it in during post.

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