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ScreenwriterBones

Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.

Name:

I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Page Turner

How do you write a page turner? How do you make your work such that the reader is compelled to keep flipping, even if they promise themselves to read only ten pages, and you've still got them on page fifty and going strong?

The answer is unervingly simple.

Tension.

Many writers, particularly beginners, don't embrace this dynamic.

Many beginners have also read too many books about writing, which talk about scenes having beginnings, middles and ends. So they write beginnings middle and ends to each scene.

Do you see a problem here? What happens at the end of something. Is there any tension left?

No. There is resolution.

So the trick is - a scene may end, but the tension does not.

Don't be afraid of a scene fragment. Don't be afraid to start in the middle of a scene and go to the end, or start at the beginning and just get to the middle and cut away. There are many ways to execute this idea. Now, don't be a bad writer and create stuff that doesn't make sense because it's incomplete - that's not what I'm saying.

But as I gave an example in our workshop: If you start a film with a car speeding along on the highway. Cut to the man driving. Cut to the woman in the passanger seat. Cut to her handcuffed wrist to the inside of the door. Cut to her waking up in bedfroom from this memory, sweating, disturbed, and then start a normal day.

And you've started your film. Wow, don't you want to know what the hell happened? You have also set the tone. This is a realistic drama, where the hero can be hurt, and possibly made quite dead.

That's tension. From this one partial scene, and it can be an underlying through-line that haunts the hero (but will unfold slowlys throughout the film) and will affect her present story (which unfolds throughout the film).

There are many ways to do it. Look to your work and find the conflict, make sure it's generated by a clash of your characters' needs. Don't resolve the tension, keep the energy up in your scenes, and even as they come to end by characters learning things about each other, or about the plot, keep the tension alive.

13 Comments:

Blogger The Moviequill said...

'Cut to the man driving. Cut to the woman in the passanger seat. Cut to her handcuffed wrist to the inside of the door. Cut to her waking up in bedfroom from this memory, sweating, disturbed, and then start a normal day'...so you're saying we should write more like we were directing the film, not put in the CUTs per se but visualize them there and alter the writing style a bit to reflect it?

Thursday, August 11, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Moviequill: Very good question - everyone has their own style, so I wouldn't want to sit on someone and say write like THIS. But as film is a visual medium, it's my experience that the writing that is most visual, dynamic and succint has the greatest impact. So, the answer is yes. And your instinct is good to not write out the CUTS per se, as a director reading your script may take issue with your choices, but if you make your "shots" visual stylistic statements, than your painting a dynamic picture that people will see as they read.

Thursday, August 11, 2005  
Blogger Warren said...

Well, I'll defer to Philip, of course, but MQ, what I think he's emphasizing is the creation of dramatic tension in a scene that is left unresolved by scene's end, forcing the reader to continue on, if for no other reason than to simply find out what happened. (Whew, long sentence.) So the other, and less compelling, way to go would be to give us the scene of the woman handcuffed in the car, and then she ... I don't know, manages to get her foot onto the accelerator, swerves the car into a tree, and the guy's killed, she just manages to get out just before the car explodes. Cut to her walking down the street covered in blood, but free. She walks into a gas station, ignores the two guys at the counter, grabs an "I Heart Truckers" tee from the novelties rack and heads into the bathroom, locking the door. Off the stunned looks of the dorky gas station attendants, sequence over. And then the reader: 1. knows all that happened and has no reason to keep reading (the woman's bloody, but safe, and she has no goal in this next sequence, yet); and 2. can focus on the fact that the concept is a bit "A Long Kiss Goodnight" (as I've written it), and the execution probably needs work (again, if I've drafted it, not Philip). Which leads them to toss the script aside and pull the next one off the pile. Now if you do it the way Philip wrote it, damn, that reader is stuck. She has to read through the next few sequences just hoping that she'll get another scene related to the woman handcuffed to the car.

Wow! Long answer. Sorry to hijack the thread. I now yield the balance of my time to the distinguished gentleman from So. Pasadena.

Thursday, August 11, 2005  
Blogger Warren said...

Of course Philip responded while I was writing my response, and I've gone and focused on a different issue. Fun discussion, though.

Thursday, August 11, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

whl: your point is exactly correct, exactly on target. Good dramatic writing, builds, teases, the delight has to be - you start creating questions (whether they are emotional or situational is a good discussion for another post), the tension starts as the reader waits for tha snwers - as you offer one answer, more questions unfold...

Thursday, August 11, 2005  
Blogger The Moviequill said...

I just finished an interview with Scott Frank and he mentioned visualizing the movie in your head, what all is in the scene, describe it all, write a huge long draft and then cut it down from there.. I can see that working in your example, describe everything first, have a look at it and see how you can mold it

Thursday, August 11, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Scott and I had kids in the same preschool years ago and though I never spoke to him passed him there on occasion. I hear he's a really good guy. He's describing his process, which works beautifully for him obviously. Other people visualize and write images, fragments, thoughts - and bits of dialogue and that becomes the film because they see it so clearly. Whatever works for you - works. Visualizing, however, is key. We are the first director, you know, laying it all out and making people see it first.

Thursday, August 11, 2005  
Blogger Grubber said...

This sort of covers the question I have. I know that the director will have his "vision" and that he is in charge of shots, and that the screenwriter is not supposed to "direct" the director.

However, as you are the one writing the movie, and it is your vision, and you want to provide tension, etc, in the reading of it, surely some basic cuts to provide that tension, etc is essential in a screenplay.

Would a development exec or similar chuck it in the too hard pile if you put in something as basic as what you guys are describing here. When I say basic, that is not meant to be derogatory, just to me, it does not seem over the top in any way, shape, or form.

Where is the fine line......or is it the old story, a good script will stand up to it anyway?

cheers
Dave.

Thursday, August 11, 2005  
Blogger writergurl said...

I read an excellent article from the Writer's Store website, by a director, Guy Magar, about writers writing visually. Here's the link: http://www.writersstore.com/article.php?articles_id=42

Thursday, August 11, 2005  
Blogger Grubber said...

Thank you Writer gurl, that was certainly a great help. I liked his examples.

I do most of my writing on the road, (or stay after work), and am normally lumbered with all my work items, and like to keep what else I take to a minimum. I wondered if Philip or anyone has come across a website that has a description of all the different camera angles and transition jargon that I could refer to whilst on the road?

Not that I would use them, but I would like to try some of his techniques in that article on different things.

cheers
Dave.

Thursday, August 11, 2005  
Blogger writergurl said...

Grubber.. as my nephew says..."No prob, Bob!" (He says that to everyone, whatever your name actually is.) :)

Thursday, August 11, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Grubber: thankfully your answer is not complicated, though I don't know of a particualr website of glossary terms (though I'm sure it's out there), but aside from the basic BLACK, FADE UP, FADE OUT, DISSOLVE, and CUT TO: (with the occasional (HARD CUT TO:, or even SMASH CUT TO: - which implies an editing moment to the reader) there is also CLOSE UP: and EXTREME CLOSE UP, of course and let's not forget POV: (for point of view). But in general, you rarely use these, it's more shooting script material. (unless you do it just a few times for dramatic impact, that's okay, or something like POV which is very visually specific and required for the reader to understand what you're doing). But you're not going to use these terms often, regular use throughout a first draft of these terms in every scene will flag you as a beginner, believe it or not. Tricks of the writer's trade however are thus: "Henry enters the massive room. Moving silently over the marble floor, he approaches the bedroom door. His hand reaches for the brass door knob, the trip wire connected to the explosive - just out of sight above his shoe line." Okay now - in this example, you see how I've laid out a master (or wide) shot in the first sentance, full shot in the second, and close up and exteme close up in the third? That's how the screenwriter paints a visual picture, creates a sense of movement and flow and a very clear picture of the movie in the reader's mind. Just use your words as you write, orient your reader exactly where you want them to be and how you're moving with them. You already have all the tools you need, your WORDS. Fuggedabout the technical stuff for now, write a great script and yes - all else will follow, the tech details matter little.

Friday, August 12, 2005  
Blogger TN_Dreamer said...

that was a great example, philip. thanks

Friday, August 12, 2005  

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