Wednesday, August 22, 2007

From MM's “Secret” Script Reviews

First, let's talk about format. The first way to impress any pro reader is to illustrate a perfect understanding of how a screenplay FUNCTIONS. Are you with me? It has to look like a script, feel like a script, and act like a script. And then the story has to knock you off your seat. (If you don't have it, you need a copy of Trottier's Screenwriter's Bible, the newer 4th edition.) Okay, the Title Page - you should keep the entire spec in 12 pt. Courier font, including the title. Cut "A Screenplay". We know it's a screenplay. Get rid of the date of the draft. Never date your spec. Specs get old REAL quick in this town and that'll work against you. Your name and personal information should be in the lower RIGHT-hand corner, because if this gets printed it up, your personal information might be hard to see. Get rid of the title at the top of every page. We don't do that. The margins are all off, and you'll want to really check this. The left margin should be 1.5 inches, the right margin about an inch. Some go as low as half an inch. The action lines were good, but you should try to keep them down to 4 lines or fewer. The character's name should be 3.7 inches from the left edge and the dialogue should be 2.5 inches from the left edge. The margins for the dialogue were particularly bad, because dialogue should be no wider than 3.5 inches, although most writers keep it down to 3 inches. In your case, it's about 4 inches (or a little wider), which is pretty bad. You can't manipulate margins like that. The margins and the format are setup this way for a good reason, because one page should equal one minute of screentime. If you have lots of dialogue and the margins have been manipulated, a reader will suspect you're cheating because you're a weak writer who's using dialogue as a crutch and more often than not, it's true. As it is in your script, the 4 inch wide dialogue means that the talk is going to take up WAY more time than what we have in page numbers. You have 120 pages, but with the wide dialogue, I'll bet you'd have three hours of talk in the editing room. I recommend that you keep the dialogue down to 3 inches just to discipline you to use WAY less dialogue in screenplays. And this kind of story should be properly formatted and about 90-100 pages…


Okay, let's talk about unproduced screenwriters composing very personal stories. On my first read through this, I kept thinking, "I'll bet she's writing from firsthand experience," and the SUPER at the end (I think) validated my suspicions. I just want to be very careful here. I have always felt that unproduced screenwriters should certainly write about the things they love but the first few stories have to be ones in which they're not so attached to them that they can't be objective about the material and making changes. Neil Simon didn't get seriously autobiographical until much later in his career and I think there's a lot of wisdom in that. You need to be a serious master of the craft before converting personal matters into dramatic form so that you can maintain objectivity about what you should keep and let go. (You also have to be able to explain to friends and family how characters loosely based on them aren't behaving in any way like them.) Not only that, it's not until after you have some name recognition that people will really WANT to see a film about your personal life unless, of course, it's an unbelievably extraordinary story, which this is not. I also suspect that there might be a tug of war going on here in which a lot of the decisions you're making has more to do with being accurate to the facts as opposed to making decisions rooted in the principles of drama like say, main plot vs. subplot, conflict, tension, character depth, character arcs, etc. Are you with me? I'm saying these things, because I fear you'll resist any suggestions because "that's not how it was," when all along you should be making decisions based on craft.


Since Mr. XXX is the protag, you have to consider the Cast Design. (I wrote about it
here and here.) Mr. XXX is the sun around which all of these other characters rotate, and so (in order to give him depth) you have to A) create a variety of sides to his character and B) carefully construct the cast design so that he acts one way toward one character and a different way toward a different character. And what's missing with the characters, for me, is depth and style. You have very clearly read a number of guru books and reviews that talk about keeping the dialogue short, keeping the action lines short, keeping the scenes short, etc, which is great. At the same time, you're so cautious about keeping everything short that you sacrifice tension and style and personality and you rob the characters of some much-needed life. Forget about the books. You have to have fun. The characters have to be alive and you just have to let them flourish and you just flow with things and then go back and trim the stuff that's not essential… And you just have to create the characters and the environment in such a way as to ensure conflict and tension. Don't be afraid to explore just to discover great material with the understanding that you'll go back and clean it up later. (I have a great article about dialogue here. You may also want to look at my character development sheets.)


The exposition was, I think, the area that needed the most work. At times, it felt forced and hard to believe. Particularly early on in the story with the first mention of the XXXX. You really had me until you started explaining things on page 9 and I was disappointed because I wanted you to keep the mystery going for a little while longer. Make it a puzzle for the audience and let them try to figure it out instead of verbally explaining things in small doses, ya know? (I also felt that her relationship to XXX could've been kept a secret a lot longer.) You should forget about telling the audience, as you did on page 23 through that weak, exposition heavy dialogue, that "XXX, I'm you're dad," and just avoid having the characters say anything about their relationships and surprise the audience IN THE END. It's a bigger surprise to not know that they're related and suddenly learn that he's her father as opposed to being told he's her adoptive father and then learn in the end that he is, in fact, her real father. That's not as big of a deal. Do you see what I mean? When these characters are together, just toy with the audience, live in a world of subtlety and subtext and save the big revelations for the end. There are other moments in my notes where I talk about exposition and moments where stuff we already know gets repeated and suggestions on alternatives, etc...


A good friend of mine told me something recently:


“If we know WHAT a person does and WHY they do it, then we know WHO they are.”

(Thanks, man. You know who you are.)


There are very specific things I admire about how you handled the adaptation of your book. I always groan when a novelist insists on adaptating his/her own book because 9 times out of 10, that novelist will fill the script with VOLUMES of voice overs by the protagonist just so many favorite passages from the book will make it into the film. Richard Russo did it with his Empire Falls adaptation on HBO and it was a total disaster. Even Steve Martin couldn’t resist the temptation with Shopgirl but at least he had the decency to keep the voice overs down to a bare minimum. A novelist falls in love with his/her own words, nothing wrong with that, we ALL do it, but the excessive use of voice overs is typically weak screenwriting, (you gotta “show don’t tell”) and the simple fact that you resisted this temptation makes you an advanced student in my book...


By the way, you forgot to write my FAVORITE PART of a screenplay - "FADE IN:" but I forgive you.


Ann Wesley Hardin said...

“If we know WHAT a person does and WHY they do it, then we know WHO they are.”

This is awesome. I'm gonna do a blogpost about it as soon as I get back from vaca!

Mystery Man said...

Yeah, he knows a thing or two. And he's got some talent.



Fun Joel said...

From one script reader to another...

I like yer style, dude!

GimmeABreak said...

“If we know WHAT a person does and WHY they do it, then we know WHO they are.”

Revealing what a person does is simple. Why is a different kettle of fish entirely. Finding a way to SHOW "why" is visual exposition at its finest and even when done well, you often have to rely on the reader/viewer to figure it out based on your clues. Sometimes, we never learn why.

And (continuing with this stream-of-consciousness ramble), is it really that important to know why? Did not knowing why Hannibal Lechter was evil detract from the enjoyment of the character? Did you appreciate him any more after seeing Hannibal Rising? Do we really care why James Bond is a womanizer and adrenaline junkie?

I don't know...

Joshua James said...

One small note . . . the title page template in final draft puts the personal info automatically on the lower left instead of the lower right, it's cool to change it though, right?

And I'd note that most, if not all the development folk I know in NYC tell me scripts should be btween 110 and 120, less than a hundred and they assume your third act needs work?

Cool beans on all the other stuff!

Nice post, my man!

Mystery Man said...

Pat - just because we know why doesn't necessarily mean we have to explain it to audiences.

Joshua - dude, they weren't supposed to know! Hehehe... Of course, it's cool, especially if I say so. FD is great, certainly not perfect. I use FD. NYC folk can handle longer scripts, because they're much smarter than LA folk. Hehehe...

Joshua James said...

Whups . . . well, I need another secret identity, heh.

NYC smarter?

I doubt that - LOL! I think we have equal shares of ignorance all over, with pockets of smart standing up here and there . . .

Now on the Lector thing . .

Let's break it down.

In Lector's case, the unknown integer standing in for X, it would read:

What plus X equals Who

We knew what he did, we knew who he was, but we didn't know why? Right?

Buffalo Bill, in the same movie, was:

What plus Why = X . . . because we didn't know who he was.

And he was arguably as scary as Lector.

During the film, we solved Bill's, and solved Clarice's, which had a far interesting equation at the beginning -

Clarice's equation was:

What plus X equals Y

And Hannibal solved X (do you still hear the lambs screaming, Clarice?) and Clarice discovered Y on her own, in the basement with Bill in the dark.

We don't solve Hannibal, at least for the audience, he's left with an unknown integer for that movie.

But it's not his movie, it's Bill and Clarice's film, which is one reason why that film is so great.

Lector is such a great WHO and WHAT that he almost overwhelmed them, but really he's only part of the film, it's Clarice's story.

I love that film, it's a great one.

But really, some movies aren't about discovering WHO (Jason Bourne films), some are about the WHY (The Sixth Sense, perhaps), and some (like the Bond films) are really about the WHAT.

So if you're creating a character that you know you KNOW in your head, you have the WHO, you simply need to reverse engineer the equation to the What and the Why?

Funny you posted this, I'd actually been working on a post regarding this very thing and decided to post it today -

Joshua James said...

I meant to write:

"But really, some movies ARE about discovering WHO (Jason Bourne films), some are about the WHY (The Sixth Sense, perhaps), and some (like the Bond films) are really about the WHAT. "

GimmeABreak said...

"Pat - just because we know why doesn't necessarily mean we have to explain it to audiences."

That clarification is appreciated. We, as the writers, need to know this about our characters. I interpreted the "we" as the audience watching the film.

GimmeABreak said...

From Josh:

"We don't solve Hannibal, at least for the audience, he's left with an unknown integer for that movie."

That's exactly what I said.

However -

"But it's not his movie, it's Bill and Clarice's film, which is one reason why that film is so great."

I didn't say it was Hannibal's movie. I was simply making a statement about one of motion picture's most interesting characters.

Joshua James said...

Hey Gimme (or Pat?) . . .

I don't disagree with ya at all, I don't think it's important that the audience know, or maybe even the writer doesn't always know . . . as long as the questions asked are great, then it's cool . . .

I just thought that - What plus Why equals Who is the DNA of character, that's all . . .

I'm kinda doing the stream of conciousness thing, too . . . I'm all too guilty of doing that, far too often, heh . . .

But damn it, it's fun to ramble!

Mim said...

Regarding page length, I think a lot of people think it's okay to have a script between 110 and 120 pages because they see movies typically run about that long.

What they don't realize is that the credits take up a good 10 to 15 minutes of that official run-time, making the actual movie between 95 - 110 minutes long.

bob said...

That's an awesome synopsis of how to write a frickin screenplay.

I think inconsistency between the why and the who is one of the major faults that can cause a script to go south. That lack of internal consistency.

Thanks MM

Mickey Lee said...

Personally, I hate it when every damn thing is explained to me (i.e., Star Wars Prequel Trilogy) -- leave a little up to the audience's imagination for pete's sake.

Great reviews, MM. I remember reading most of these on TS. Good stuff, and like Bob said, a great "how-to".

Mystery Man said...

Joel & Bob - Thanks so much!

Mickey - Actually, you didn't see any of those reviews on TS. They were done privately, but I covered many topics you've seen before in my TS reviews. The last review, though, for the novelist is a little dated. I referenced doing a review for her when I was SOM and wrote the How to Write a Constructive Review. She did an adaptation of her own book, which is one of my all-time favorites. I'm not even kidding. I love her. We still keep in touch, actually.

With respect to WHY - it can weaken a character if you explain why. Well, I don't know if that's the right way to say it. Sometimes, it's no damn fun if you take away some of the mysteries about a character.

People can be quite content not knowing everything about a character (or blogger). Hehehe...


Mickey Lee said...

Oh wow, color me embarrassed. I thought for sure those were TS snippets! Or maybe you just have to mete out the same lessons over and over?

Mystery -- exactly. Even in this age of CGI, you can't take the mystery out of movies. Leaving things up to the imagination, I think, gives the audience a more personal experience with the film.