Thursday, August 13, 2009

It's in the Genes

Yeah, if only...

The DNA of Screenwriting: Avoiding Common and Fatal Screenwriting Mistakes workshop was the last class of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's Summer Conference I attended that first day. This was presented by Ted Russell Neff, a graduate of the UCLA Film School and 30-year veteran of the motion-picture and television industry. (No photo available).

Did you know that you are an experienced film critic? It's true.

Ted pointed out that we're all exposed to stories at an early age; from children's picture books through Saturday morning cartoons to today's Academy-Award contenders. So the screenwriter has to win over the audience--that includes you--in order to bask in Hollywood's sunny glow.

Unfortunately the vast majority of submitted screenplays end up in the "slush pile," a mound of unread manuscripts. The key reason for this fate is that these unwanted stories were submitted before they were ready. Beginning screenwriters envision authoring the next blockbuster. The reality is that in Hollywood, the big-budget--and therefore high risk--film projects are made by seasoned writers. So one has to start of small. (My YouTube movies are probably too small--infinitesimal even--but hey it's a "start!").

Unlike books, films and television shows have a finite time to tell a story. Optimally, this is 2 hours, or 1.5 hours for a romantic comedy. So every scene must move the story forward or it will end up on the cutting-room floor. Once connected, each scene should create an ebb-and-flow effect. That is, if a scene starts off with a negative (-) mood then it should end in a positive (+) mood or visa-verse. Then the moods in the following scene should be reversed.

So the story's flow should look like this: (-) (+), (+) (-), (-) (+), (+) (-), (-) (+) and so on.

While this may seem obvious, but movies are visual media. Most beginning screenwriters forget this and write too much character exposition in their scripts. But the audience--that's you again--won't remember what characters say, but what they do. And speaking of characters, they should have both a conscious desire and an unconscious one--and they should be in conflict.

Remember, without conflict there is no story. And the more layered the conflict--the better the story.

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