HERE’S WHAT WRITERS EARNED THIS YEAR

As reported today on Variety.com, this was a banner year for writers:

Despite the WGA strike, earnings for writers rose 4% to a record $943 million in the fiscal year ended March 31, reflecting accelerated work on feature scripts.

Feature work jumped nearly 16% to $502.5 million as studios stockpiled, but TV earnings were hit by the strike, sliding 6.8% to $437.3 million, according the June 17 report sent recently to WGA West members. WGA members struck for 100 days during that fiscal year, going out Nov. 5 and not returning until Feb. 12.

WHAT IS CHARACTER CHANGE?

Casablanca GifA note you are likely to receive in the course of your writing is that “your character needs to change” by the end of the story. Sometimes, you will be told the character needs to “learn” something or needs to “grow”. Too often, the writer is tempted to include a superficial “change” to meet this note. Doing so usually destroys the story. Here are some observations on how to avoid this pitfall and what is at the heart of character change.

How a character is transformed is different for each story. More importantly, the creative process through which a writer discovers and then creates this character change is likely different for each writer. There is no formula or magic process. However, while you are working through these issues, there are some key questions to ask yourself in order to test whether your conception of the character and of the story itself will ultimately lead you to a story with “character change”.

I use the following questions as departure points to create not only the character but the very bones of the story to support that character. By conceiving of the story through these types of questions, I force myself to create a storyline that comes from character change. Here are the key questions (for me):

    1. What fact defines the character’s identity that he or she comes to see differently by the end of the story?

    2. What does the character find out that makes him or her see the world differently?

    3. What aspect of the character’s core identity does he or she learn something new about which makes him or her a different person at the end of the story?

These are not superficial questions. They involve and have implications for every aspect of your story. Each of these questions involves the very core identity of your character and they all assume that this core changes by the end of the story. The best way to understand this is to see it in action. Here are several examples:

CASABLANCA = The core of Rick’s character is angry bitterness because he was stood up without explanation by the woman he loved. By the end of the story, he finds out why she left him and that she still loves him. It transforms him into a different character (in this case, restoring him to the man he once was). Notice, he literally learns a new external fact that goes to the very heart of his being and changes it.

THE SIXTH SENSE = The core of Malcolm’s character is his belief that he is a phony, not a good doctor to these children. Eventually, he has an insight, namely that Cole might be telling the truth when he says he sees ghosts, and through helping the boy, Malcolm comes to learn that he is not a phony. He ends the story with a great sense of self-worth that he did not have at the beginning. Notice, what he “learns” is an instantaneous insight – namely that he should listen to the Cole instead of judging him. The insight itself does not change Malcolm’s sense of self-worth. Rather, the act of successfully helping Cole gives Malcolm his new sense of being. This is different than Casablanca, where the new fact itself transforms Rick and everything that follows is just a reveal to us that the character has truly changed.

IN THE LINE OF FIRE = Frank thinks he is a coward and that because of his cowardice, the world is a worse place. He is driven by his feeling of cowardice and his need to prove himself. He learns he is no coward when he takes a bullet for the president. He is no longer driven to prove anything. In this case, there is no external fact learned and no instantaneous insight. Rather, his very act of courage transforms him.

UNFORGIVEN
= Munny lives a hard life, a cursed man suffering for his sins of the past. Ultimately, he is changed by having to use the same tools he used as a drunken, valueless, murderer to enforce some sense of values and honor. He leaves a changed man with some sense of redemption, clouded though it be.

DIE HARD = McLane thinks he is too dumb and unsophisticated to keep the interest of his wife. He learns he is smart enough to save her life. This is the weakest change of all the examples, but it is still present and important to driving the story forward. This picture was elevated from a B-movie to an A-movie in large part because the change McClane had to go through resonated with the audience.

In each case, the “change” is the character discovering what is already inside of him. Each of these stories leads that character to this discovery in a different way. However, all of them share something in common. The story is conceived in terms of character change. In Casablanca, Rick must become a different man in order to do the right thing. In Die Hard, McClane must actually be that smart person to save his wife. In In The Line Of Fire, Frank must be courageous to save the president. Notice that the stronger the story conception in terms of character change, the stronger the story. In Casablanca, perhaps the strongest of all of these, the change that is required is the enormous. Rick must go from selfish, bitter man to selfless, understanding hero. The person at the end is the polar opposite of the person at the beginning (but, importantly, the person at the end was really there all along; Rick just had to discover him again).

This may be helpful; it may just be Monday morning quarterbacking. Or, like Rick in Casablanca, I may be misinformed. You decide.

Enough. Now go write….

“HELP ME HELP YOU”

WHO?   “Jerry Maguire”, “The Sixth Sense”, “Pleasantville” and many other well-written, successful screenplays share an important technique. This technique not only helps the reader and, eventually, the audience to engage in the story from the first few pages, but it helps you as a writer to write the story. It forces you to focus your story from the very beginning, something that is key to a successful spec script.

What is this magic technique? Proper character introductions.

A proper character introduction does all of the following: (1) introduces the character in crisis; (2) reveals the character’s internal conflict; (3) provides a basis for relating to or empathizing with the character – even the antagonist; and (4) demonstrates the character’s unique personality.

Character introductions are one of the few places in a screenplay where you can be very, very overt. You still need to “show, not tell”, but you can hit the points incredibly directly.

The best way to understand this is by example, so here they are:

“Jerry Maguire” (written by Cameron Crowe) – Jerry is introduced in crisis, narrating directly to us his strange dream, discussing what is wrong with his life and how he believes it can be saved. You cannot get more direct than that. After these pages, you understand his character, you know his internal conflict, what drives, and to what he aspires.

“The Sixth Sense” (written by M. Night Shayamalan) – In Malcolm’s opening scene, he expresses his worst fear, that he is really a fraud and a failure as a child psychologist, and his desire – not to be a fraud. We also hear Anna’s internal conflict, that she is second to Malcolm’s work. I prefer to introduce one character at a time, but even with these two characters introduced simultaneously, the introductions are effective. We also see both of them in crisis: an old patient has come back to kill Malcolm. We see Malcolm’s genuine desire to help.

“Pleasantville” (written by Gary Ross) – David is introduced listening to his mother argue with her boyfriend as he is engrossed in the perfect world of the T.V. show “Pleasantville”. The contrast between the real world and the TV world, and David’s reaction, reveals what David wants and what he has. His internal conflict and his desire are revealed without David even saying a word. We already know him and what he wants.

Once these clear, focused introductions are made, the writer has a compass for the balance of the story. Every scene will explore these character conflicts and, eventually, the story will resolve the character’s desire. This type of character introduction also builds immediate audience/reader engagement. From the beginning, the audience/reader wants to see these issues explored and resolved.

Not all screenplays are built this way. However, using strong, clear, overt character introductions is a strong technique with benefits throughout the writing process and one you should consider.

Enough. Now go write….

Writer Posts Script

Princer of Persia
Photo by Loren Javier @ flickr.com
Jordan Merchner, creator of the book for the video game Prince of Persia posted his screenplay for the movie of the same name here. He is not one of the credited screenwriters on the movie (those credits belong to Boaz Yakin and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard). Instead, he has “screen story” credit. If you want to unravel the frightening mysteries of WGA credit determination, you can do that here.

The Complete Guide To Standard Script Formats: The Screenplay

by Cole/Haag, CMC Publishing

Cole and Haag set the standard for script formatting decades ago and their legacy lives on. The Thinking Writer thinks the forward to this book alone is worth the price. Understanding the basic ideology of script formatting has significant impact on narrative, from understanding how pages translate into screen time to learning how to write down the page instead of across. Cole and Haag also save the committed writer from the falacy of word-processor formatted scripts. Automatic formatting is a great time saver, but understanding formatting is critical to taking intelligent control of your narrative. What formatting options are available that your computer does not automatically throw out? Many, and they are carefully covered in this essential reference work.