Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Top 10 Clichéd Opening Scripts

I take no credit for this whatsoever - it's a complete steal from Danny's blog. Nevertheless, here's a post from the days of yore....or.....y'know.......2005.
1. Dream Sequence: Commonly found in horrors or thrillers. Usually followed by the protagonist snapping out of sleep and then going about his/her business. Best avoided. It’s meant to establish style and intrigue but more often than not generates confusion and irritation.
Not even I'm into cliché this much! Although I have been tempted to open with a dream in the past. I didn't, but I was tempted!
2. Drifting through clouds: A lot of coming of age/rites of passage flicks use this gimmick where the camera glides through the clouds to find the protagonist’s humble abode while he introduces us, via voice-over, to the fascinating minutiae of his life: “It was a summer I’d never forget.” If it’s not a voice-over, it’s usually singing or music from the story’s era.
I'm guilty of this one. Not in a script, but a treatment. I genuinely believe the idea works for this particular piece - you see, we follow two ravens flying through various mystical worlds and landing on the shoulders of Odin. Wait....why am I justifying this? Hmm.....cliché.....
3. The Prologue: A tried and tested way to begin any movie but a cliché nonetheless. The Exorcist has a good one - the best ones are where they establish something interesting but we cut to separate events entirely to begin the real story. Not easy to achieve. Recommended for skilled scribes only.
This gets used a lot in episodic television. In shows like 'Buffy,' 'Angel' and 'Supernatural' use the teaser to set up the 'monster of the week'. It's expected and I like it! (in TV)
4. The Embarrassing Moment: Hero undergoes a humiliating experience, usually with the opposite sex (especially if it’s a rom com) or as a child which defines his present-day character as a psycho/nerd/stalker/chief executive/script reader.
Nothing to say here - I don't understand why anyone would want to use this - it risks setting your protagonist up as an annoying stereotype, surely? But then.....'Halloween' ........
5. The Chase: A person being chased through the woods by an unseen and ghastly assailant. Probably a monster of some kind. Bo-ring (see ‘Dream Sequence’). Also any car chase or foot chase through the city streets to establish our ‘never-say-die’ and gutsy hero.
I think this is a perfectly justified opening. It may be overused but for good reason - tension. The trick is to make it original in some way - subvert expectations.
6. The Quick Murder: A really stupid person gets quickly slaughtered as he/she goes around an empty house saying ‘hello?’. However, when the hero comes into play, the murderer takes the full 120 mins running time to make a committed attack only to be thwarted at the last minute. Ok, that’s the end of the script but it only makes the beginning more annoying…
This is used a lot in horror movies obviously - a genre that's seemingly impossible to do with originality nowadays.
7. Talk to Camera: The protagonist, heck sometimes a whole bunch of characters, ‘break the fourth wall’ and talk directly to the audience. A more polished version of this is when the narrative includes vox-pop style cuts of the characters being interviewed. It was clever once. Now it’s annoying.
Eugh...breaking the fourth wall - it's there for a reason right?
8. The Chummy Writer: The writer wants to ingratiate himself on the reader so will try to chat him up while he reads, as in: “FADE IN: It’s dark but not too dark that we can’t find our seats in the cinema and as the credits roll...” Some of this chummy style can be okay if the script is a comedy but stuff like: “I’d write the sex scene but my mother reads my scripts” is best left avoided.
Why? Just why?!
9. The Break In: A cool heist or burglary is done. The thief retires but is called back into duty to do ‘one last job’. Another similarity to this is the ‘false beginning’ where we might see a heist or something criminal taking place which is then revealed to be a training exercise or summink like that. Monsters Inc and James Bond did this well. Spec scripts do not but they do it often.
*cough* 'X-Men 3' *cough*
10. Fall From Grace: The lead character is sacked, demoted or chucked especially if it’s a personal drama, cop thriller or rom com, causing him to start from scratch and reinvent his life, go against orders or find the love of his life.
Inciting incident taken to the extreme. You hear "I need to see you in my office", which is a cue for you to go to sleep for the next 10 minutes.

Are there any more clichéd intros that have shown up since '05?

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Killing your hero

There was an interesting post last month on Alex Epstein's blog about killing your protagonist. Someone asked whether it should be done. Here's what Alex has to say:

"This is really a gut check question. Are you in the right genre? Does it make it a more satisfying story? Does it deliver the goods on the concept? Have you set this up throughout the movie so that it is a surprising but
inevitable ending? Then go for it.

I think the key thing with a surprise downer ending is it has to be, somehow, not a true surprise. It can't come out of nowhere. It has to be set up emotionally. The hero has a death wish. The hero is getting away with something that we know, deep down, he can't really get away with. Or shouldn't. There have been intimations of death all along. The resolution of the movie is really about what the hero accomplished, not whether he survives. The hero is a bad bad man and we really want him dead.

The posters for a certain Mel Gibson movie say, "Every man dies; not every man really lives." So you know going in that the odds aren't good for Mr. William Wallace.

In a horror movie I saw a few years ago, the heroine loses her child in the opening. She never really gets over that. In one version of the ending (the European one, of course), she doesn't make it out alive because dying (and being reunited with her dead daughter) is a better result for her than going on living.

In a long-running HBO series, the main character (arguably) winds up dead in the finale. But he's talked about it ("When you get it, you probably don't even see it coming") and he lives in a world where it's normal.

You shouldn't end on a twist for the sake of a twist. But if you can surprise us, yet leave us with a feeling afterwards that this was the natural conclusion of the story -- then go for it."

Interesting thoughts. I had that problem myself a while ago. After a lot of thought, I made decision and stuck to it. I was able to make that decision after getting the theme sorted in my head - what point am I trying to make in this story? Ultimately, I decided that my message was - people have the right to live. So if I were to kill my protagonist, in the space of 10 seconds I would have shat all over the entire story!

It's imperative that your ending reflect the theme of the script. Maybe it would help to think of stories as academic essays with an introduction, argument and conclusion:

INTRO - what are you saying here? What sort of film is this? Set the theme.
ARGUMENT - tell your story.
CONCLUSION - reinforce your theme and review.

I thought it might be a good idea to go through a few stories and see how the theme relates to the character's ending. Do these stories do as Epstein says: "it is a surprising but inevitable ending?"

'Terminator 2: Judgement Day'
The mission: preventing Judgement Day and destroying machines.
Ending: The Terminator is destroyed.

Of course that ending was inevitable - the Terminator had to 'die'. It's arguable that John Connor was, in fact, the protagonist, but people watch a 'Terminator' movie for Arnie right?

'Saving Private Ryan'
We follow Tom Hank's Captain Miller throughout the movie. At one point, he notes:
So, I guess I've changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I've changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me, whenever it is that I get back to her. And how I'll ever be able to tell her about days like today.
You may not have realised it at the time, but we get clear foreshadowing here. From this point it was inevitable that Miller would never return home - he would die on this mission. How can he tell her about days like today? He can't - so he won't have to.

'V for Vendetta'
While we may love V for his anarchist, rebellious ways, we can't deny the fact that he is a terrorist. I know: "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter", but V is a mass murderer who is simply too dangerous to be left alive. Of course he as to die - there is no other fitting ending to this character's story.

'Lord of the Rings'
In the first movie, it was said by a freaky witch/seer/elf (played by Cate Blanchett) that the quest to destroy the Ring would claim Frodo's life. So was it always inevitable that Frodo would die at the end of the trilogy?

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'
Forgetting that she came back for 2 more seasons, Buffy died at the end of season 5. At one point in the series, the first Slayer told Buffy:
"Death is your gift."
It takes our girl a while to figure it out, but with death being her gift, it was foreshadowed that her death would be the thing to save the world.

You can argue that Angel and the gang don't die at the show's finale, however I believe they do. There is a great speech from Angel in the previous episode where he proposes their suicidal mission:
This isn't a "keep fighting the good fight" kind of deal. Let's be clear. I'm talking about killing every... single... member... of the Black Thorn. We don't walk away from that.
We do this, the senior partners will rain their full wrath. They'll make an example of us. I'm talking full-on hell, not the basic fire-and-brimstone kind that we're used to.
Ten to one, we're gone when the smoke clears. They will do everything in their power to destroy us. So... I need you to be sure. Power endures. We can't bring down the Senior Partners, but for one bright shiny moment we can show them that they don't own us. You need to decide for yourselves if that's worth dying for. I can't order you to do this. Can't do it without you. So we'll vote... as a team. Think about what I'm asking you to do. Think about what I'm asking you to give.
Angel and the gang know their fate - the conclusion was inevitable - they die.

In all the above examples, the death of the main character is always inevitable and justified. They're also intertwined with the theme:

Humans vs. machines ('Terminator 2')
Sacrifice ('Saving Private Ryan')
Disrupting the status quo ('V for Vendetta')
Extreme heroism ('LotR,' 'Buffy')
Making a point ('Angel')

Right now, I can't think of any examples where killing the protagonist was unjustified or not linked to the theme. There must be some - anyone have any?

Monday, 18 January 2010

How do you create lovable characters?

A while ago I received a comment on this post about lovable characters. I talked about the TV characters I love and why. It was more a personal thing than anything focused on writing. I hadn't even begun to think about what the writers did to create such characters. Nevertheless, this was the comment:

What exactly can a writer do to make a character lovable? In your post you say, and illustrate, a few techniques: Show the character loving others. Show others loving the character. Make the character a real die-hard and energetic, like Angel. Let the character say intelligent and noble things, and make her actions match her words.

So these heroic people are heroic through and through. What are your other ideas about how, specifically, a writer can best make a character lovable?

My short answer was: not a clue!

I tried to answer with a series of jumbled thoughts all about identifying with characters and sympathy. But I've been thinking there must be more to it than that. What is a lovable character, after all? Please forgive the below response to the question:

I think the most important thing to remember is that to love a character, you don't have to like them. A great character isn't always a good person.

Yes the ones I listed are pretty much good, but I also love the character of Dexter (in the show 'Dexter'). I think he's amazing, but this is a guy who kills people in very ambiguous ways.

A character has to have flaws. They say we like people for their qualities but love them for their vices. If a person is good through and through, we may like them, but something just isn't there. By seeing their flaws, we are able to identify with them to some degree - we are able to see that they are people - real people with real qualities and flaws.

We don't always have to love their actions (I've hated the actions of some characters) but what we need to be able to do is sympathise with their decisions. I use "sympathise" here not as a "I feel sorry for you" kind of think, but a way if identifying.

Sympathy is essential for every story and character. At one point, Spike tried to rape Buffy. It's an irredeemable act. But the thing is - I understand why he chose to do it. That's not to say I agreed with his decision, but it was his way to reaching out - he would do anything to make things the way they were.

If you can make the audience identify with a character and his decisions, you're half way there, i think.

So you can show people liking him, but you can also show people hating him.

Two great ways to get people to identify with a character:

Save the Cat - make your 'hero' do something likable (like save a cat).
Take the Shit - put them through torture at their intro. In the Matrix, Neo gets so much stick from his boss - we've all been in similar situations - we empathise with him at that moment and consequently identify with him.

Hopefully there's something above that can answer your question. But the short answer is - not a clue! If you make people identify with the character (on some level) they may not say they "love" them but they would no doubt agree they're amazing characters (Hannibal Lecter et al)

I'm not sure I know. So I'm putting the question out there:

How do you create lovable characters? say whatever you want - should you create them? Is there such a thing? Is there any sort of standard formula? Am I spouting complete nonsense? I'm genuinely curious now after thinking about that question, so please comment away. If you want, you can always email me - everyone has email!

Friday, 15 January 2010

How trains can help your writing

I love trains. And here's why:

They're great for brainstorming. I travel to uni with friends most days which means I don't get much time to just think. Don't get me wrong - they're great! - but sometimes you like to just sit and think for a while. And trains are great for that. Cos what else are you going to do? "Read those 36 books you're studying this semester!" I hear you cry. Yeah, whatever!

The other day I was on the train at 8:45am, which is a great time for people-spotting. It's not so early that folk are sitting there like zombies, but it's not so late that they're engrossed in a good book. Trust me, 8:45 is the perfect time!

So I'm sitting there with a pad and pen, all ready to brainstorm story ideas (with silent headphones in case someone decides to talk to me - don't you hate that?!). The train is semi-busy so there's about a 70% chance someone will decide to sit next to me.

A man with a briefcase (you know the type - the Metro readers) - makes his way down the carriage towards me. He passes a few available seats, looking suspiciously at their neighbours. Then he spots me. Our eyes meet for a moment and I know - he's coming to sit next to me!

"Oh no you don't!" I think. He speeds up slightly, confident in his choice of seat. I grow more and more nervous. He's almost upon me!

"It's worth a shot," I think. I look him directly in the eyes and with the subtlest of finger movements (so as not to appear like a freak) I think "This is not the seat you're looking for."

And you know what? It fecking works! Thank you, George Lucas - you may have inflicted 'The Phantom Menace' on us, but you also gave us Jedi mind tricks, and for that, I am eternally grateful! It's possible, however, that the briefcase guy got a closer look at me and thought better of it. But we'll go with option numero uno, ok?

So, having used my awesome Star Wars powers to evade sitting next to someone, I get to work brainstorming.

But I find it hard to concentrate. You see, the woman across the aisle is engaged in a very interesting phone conversation. From what I could make out, her son had been bunking off school for the past week and blaming it on the weather. But today she'd put her foot down and forced him out of the house. Only he'd come back to find Daddy entertaining a bunch of friends on the Nintendo Wii. So now, this woman is having a conversation with her immature husband while her truanting son pretends to drive a small kart around a crazy track! Needless to say, the call is rather heated and I'm not the only one listening!

But I get over it. Yet again, I start brainstorming. But wait.....

A man talking to himself! I shit you not! "There's no way I'm getting there on time," he mumbles. " by nine-fifteen......" I glance at my watch: 8:56 - you'll be lucky! ".....finished with Dan by half-past......." Sure, mate! "......back in the car....beat the traffic....." Ha!!! ".....hotel by ten..." Wait! Hotel? "......should be done by twelve......" Ooooh slow worker! "......lunch, and back at the office by twelve-thirty....." Yet you only allow half an hour for lunch. Interesting. ".....god, I'm going to be knackered!" No shit!!!

After a minute's silence, I resumed my brainstorm (by this time, I've written the words "short film" in the centre of the page and drawn a big ring around it. Doing well).

"All tickets please!" screeches the way-too-happy voice of the conductor. I take out my pass and wait impatiently. She arrives, looks at it and says "Have you got your photocard, flower?" Flower? "It's just a day one," I reply. "Oh, right you are," she beams. "Sorry petal." Petal?! What am I, some sort of human-plant-thing? A bloody triffid?! I consider performing a Force-choke on her, but decide to let it go.

Back to the brainstorm. I draw a line from the centre of the page and write "10 minutes long."

"We will shortly be arriving at Meadowhall," comes the robotic spasm from above. People start to get up (everyone loves to be first off the train) and make their way to the doors.

"Which side will it be on?" an old lady asks her half-dead husband. He grunts to show he's still breathing but we all know he doesn't even know he's on a train, never mind on which side the platform will appear. "Useless," mumbles the old woman. I can't help but agree. Anyway, the train stops and the platform is on the right side. People shuffle off and more folk get on. Time to put those Jedi powers to work once again.

I make eye contact with most who get on (people don't like eye contact - the person who initiates and maintains contact takes power from the other, y'see). People generally avoid me, filling up the free rows or sitting next to half-asleep folk. As the train pulls off, I'm still sitting alone - success! Or, if we go with option 2, I'm incredibly psycho-looking intimidating!

So after a short while, we stop at Sheffield and I venture out into the cold, making my way through the ice to my seminar. It was an interesting journey and part of me can't help wondering:
  • If that woman's son ever stopped playing Mario Kart and dragged his sorry ass to school.
  • If that Black Suit man ever made his rendezvous at the hotel and if it really took him 2 hours.
  • If Miss. Screeches-Alot Conductor ever manages to distinguish between humans and plants.
  • If the old man ever correctly guesses which side of the train the platform will be on.
  • Whether you can make the robotic train woman who announces each stop say absolutely anything at all. Like....say......"We will shortly be arriving at.....Uranus." What? Don't look so disgusted. Rule of thumb - one arse joke per blog post.
So that was my train journey to uni. Not bad. Now, coming back.......well, that's a different story, but let me just say - someone sat next to me and I have come up with a new short film idea. Set on a train.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Most exciting projects

Howdy readers! As you know, I'm currently working on 'Exile' (my feature script). The plan is to have the final draft of that done by August. But in the meantime, I'm itching to get moving on my other features. So I wonder if I might ask a favour.:

Of the three features I'm planning at the moment, I'm unsure which ones are the most exciting to an outsider. So I've set up a poll to the right-hand side listing; which film would you most like to see?

Gods of Asgard is a two-part film series, retelling stories of the famous Asgardians (gods of the Vikings). Part I deals with a prophesy that foretells the death of the beloved god Balder, that will trigger the end of the world. Part II explores the consequences of the previous film and shows the gods as they prepare for the battle to end all battles - Ragnarok.

The premise for Fallen is simple - what if the Archangel Gabriel fell from Grace? How would this happen and why? The epic explores an alternative view of Christianity, which focuses on desperation and forgiveness.

Dead Alliance is an action/horror about a vampire hunter and his ongoing battle with the vampire lord. When a band of young vampires take over, an alliance is forged between the two. Is the enemy of my enemy my friend...or my enemy?

Please only vote once - the highest scoring idea will probably be the project I devote the next few months to. Thanks for the help!


Saturday, 9 January 2010

A beetle, an outcast and a goblin walk into an essay....

Sounds like a bad literary joke eh? I suppose in some ways it is - after all, this was my essay! *eerie silence*


So I finished my 3000 word essay on Victorian Literature on Thursday and dared to get a train to Sheffield to hand it in yesterday. And I'm starting another essay today. I hate essays - they're so unnatural and formulaic. Although, once I get into it, about half way through the essay, I start enjoying myself. I try to make my essays enjoyable - after all, my tutor is going to be reading shitloads of the same material over and over and over again, so I like mine to a) stand out and b) make the tutor smile.

This might not be the line to do it though:
"Therefore, is it not possible that she actually enjoys her rape? On some primal, instinctive level?"
Don't worry, I'm not trying to justify any freaky shit - it's all justified in the essay. I hope. Trust me.

So this essay I've just written was on the issue of foreignness in Victorian Lit. I looked at Richard Marsh's The Beetle, which came out the same year as Dracula (1897) and promptly outsold Stoker's Gothic for several years. Heard of it? Didn't think so. It is, naturally, about a beetle who comes to London and terrorises various people. It's an interesting read, if only for a bit of a love story thrown in the middle.

I also talked about Christina Rossetti's poem 'Goblin Market' which tells the story of two women who come across a group of goblins selling fruit. The first sister is tempted (almost hypnotically) by the fruit (hmm......religious elements?) and becomes very ill after eating. Her sister then travels back to the goblin men to save her life. Where she is promptly raped (see, told you it was justified!).

The other poem I discussed was John Davidson's 'A Loafer.' I particularly liked this piece and - as someone who usually doesn't sit down and read poetry for the fun of it - I can see myself doing just that. It's not very long, so why not just have a read:
I hang about the streets all day,
At night I hang about;
I sleep a little when I may,
But rise betimes the morning's scout;
For through the year I always hear
Afar, aloft, a ghostly shout.

My clothes are worn to threads and loops;
My skin shows here and there ;
About my face like seaweed droops
My tangled beard, my tangled hair;
From cavernous and shaggy brows
My stony eyes untroubled stare.

I move from eastern wretchedness
Through Fleet Street and the Strand;
And as the pleasant people press
I touch them softly with my hand,
Perhaps I know that still I go
Alive about a living land.

For far in front the clouds are riven
I hear the ghostly cry,
As if a still voice fell from heaven
To where sea-whelmed the drowned folk lie
In sepulchres no tempest stirs
And only eyeless things pass by.

In Piccadilly spirits pass:
Oh, eyes and cheeks that glow!
Oh, strength and comeliness! Alas,
The lustrous health is earth I know
From shrinking eyes that recognise
No brother in my rags and woe.

I know no handicraft, no art,
But I have conquered fate;
For I have chosen the better part,
And neither hope, nor fear, nor hate.
With placid breath on pain and death,
My certain alms, alone I wait.

And daily, nightly comes the call,
The pale unechoing note,
The faint "Aha!" sent from the wall
Of heaven, but from no ruddy throat
Of human breed or seraph's seed,
A phantom voice that cries by rote.
Interesting no? Even if you haven't studied Vic Lit, you can still appreciate what's being done - a lot of ambiguous comments about society with some strong imagery to do with travel, nature, Christianity et al. When reading, you can really visualise this character and his journey through London. The shrieking voices in the darkness. The uncertainty of what's to come. My favourite aspect is what you get when you ask this question - what happens to the speaker in the end?

No particular reason for me posting this really - got bored!

Anyway, hope you enjoyed the poem - I'm now off to write yet another essay. have a good weekend.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

It's a brand new year

So here we are - Christmas is over and a new year has begun. It's time to carry on with life. So here's the part where we all decide where we'll be in 12 months' time.

I will have finished uni and hopefully have a job a) in the media giving me enough money to survive or b) not in the media giving me enough money to survive. There's a general survival theme to my job goals.

I aim to have completed more screenplays, including 'Exile' and my TV spec 'Custodians'. I'll also be well on the way to planning at least four other projects, hopefully having reached the final draft of two of them, 2nd/3rd draft of another and 1st draft with the last.

I also plan to see 'Three' made by Darren S Cook and entered into numerous festivals and link at least two other shorts to directors.

There we are - conviction. If I haven't done those things by 1st January 2011, consider me a failure.

So what are your goals for the coming year? Did you achieve what you set out to in 2009? Are there any goals being carried over into 2010? Where the hell will you be come 1st January 2011?

Saturday, 2 January 2010

WMD - feature film screening

Someone recently got in touch with me about WMD - a feature film about the Iraq Inquiry. I was really interested with the idea and I love films that serve another purpose other than to just entertain. So when I was asked to help spread the word about a screening, I was all for it!
2002. A low grade MI6 desk officer inadvertently discovers deliberate flaws in the evidence being compiled to invade Iraq, and tries to expose the truth.
Here's some information about the film's 2009 highlights:
- WMD simultaneous UK theatrical release and iTunes launch in October
- 3 star reviews from the Guardian and Channel 4
- Best Debut UK Feature Film Nomination at the East End Film Festival back in April
- Evening Standard article about why David Holroyd was interrogated and the crew got their passport confiscated at Rome airport!
- And all the support we got from everyone especially from John Pilger, Clare Short MP & Graydon Carter
And what's coming up in 2010:
2010 will start with a WMD screening followed by Q&A hosted by former BBC journalist Sumit Bose with Clare Short MP and myself
on Tuesday 5th January
at 20h30
at the Clapham PictureHouse
So if this is the sort of film you're interested in, go visit the website and run on down on Tuesday.