Writers Workshop Script Doctor Seminar
Handout from: Fix Your Favorite Screenplay
With Dorian Scott Cole
Copyright © 1996, 1997 Dorian Scott Cole
Where do you begin writing a story? Writing characters? That's the contemporary wisdom - write characters first. But that's a lot like meeting a bunch of friends and having no place to go. Nah. How about writing a concept? After all, concept ideas are something you can even sell. But concepts are kind of dry - like advertising - long on promise, short on delivery. The plot! A good plot will sell your story quicker than anything - maybe that's it, hammering out a good plot. But after you write down everything that's going to happen, it's no longer interesting. Well, maybe just start writing on a theme that interests you? Just intuitively start writing - let it flow from the subconscious? But half way through the entire thing falls apart and you have wasted your time.
There is no one best place for everyone to begin writing a story. Where a writer is inspired to begin - with characters, with events, with a fascinating idea, or with a twisting plot - has everything to do with the result. It creates an angle on the human condition. It's telling a story with a bit of attitude. What is central to the entire process is the human condition. Whatever the story is about, it is something that is of interest to human beings because it amplifies some aspect of what it means to be living.
Form vs. events vs. substance: (this could get really dry) What gives life meaning? Bill and Bob, in one story, see helping an old lady across the street to be a privilege. In another story they both see it as a hateful task. Every person has a way of interpreting life. A way of understanding what is happening to him. A way of judging the potential consequences of what he does. Those things that interpret and judge and give understanding are a system of thought; a framework; a form. They're ideas. They're like mathematical tables that arrange numbers for useful interpretation. They're like models or icons that represent things. They're like a framework that supports the rooms of a house so it can be functional.
Ideas by themselves aren't anything. A story that has characters spewing one idea after another is as boring as reading the preceding paragraph. But ideas give meaning to our lives by saying, "This is what it means to me." For example, a kiss on the cheek means nothing without some interpretation. It may be a friendly greeting without which people would be insulted. It might be a sexual advance to a woman which will get the guy killed. It depends on how form interprets it.
A kiss is an event. Events by themselves are meaningless. Stars collide. Earthworms dig new tunnels. Bridges collapse in the mountains. Viewing these things has no gripping or compelling interest for most people. A hundred scenes of men kissing other men's wives on the cheek with no reaction from the husband would not be interesting. A screenplay of any of these events would do poorly at the box office. Events must affect the substance of people's lives in order for us to take an interest. A kiss leads to a furious husband taking vengance on the man making advances on his wife. That is substance. People's lives are affected. The ideas take physical shape and conflict with each other. So a screenplay must have all three things: form (ideas, a way of understanding), events (things happen), and substance (lives are affected).
Take any of these away and there is no story that will sell. But where you start writing will determine what is emphasized in the story. Idea driven stories focus on form. Action/adventure movies focus on events, which form the plot. Character driven movies focus on substance (affects on lives). Action/adventure sells best. A good plot will sell your story faster than good characters. Idea (form) driven movies sell poorly because it's more difficult for the audience to relate to the lack of events and impact in character's lives. The writer who writes about ideas has to go to greater lengths to include events and impact.
Good characters (well motivated, which puts them in conflict with others) will push to form a good plot. For all three types of stories, the chemistry that makes the audience relate is the character and what happens in their lives. So characterization has to be done very early in the process of creating a story.
One thing that unites all three elements is "concept." A concept is a one line statement of what the story is about: "Babysitter lures wife from husband and wife shoots her." There is an idea: husbands can be attracted to babysitters. There is an event: he goes for it. There is substance: The infuriated wife kills her, wrecking all their lives. Also during the process of writing and rewriting, a concept can be constructed which will prevent the story from going in all directions.
The plot driven approach sometimes works. You arrive at a concept, hammer out the plot of a good story, then start constructing characters that have exactly the characteristics needed to react as the plot dictates. I think highly skilled writers can do this. Studios can get endless rewrites that slap together appealing characters. But the proof that it can consistently be done successfully is lacking. Too many movies that get made, or stories that get published, just aren't very good. I think most writers can't create characters that will interest an audience using this approach. Sincce the plot driven movie has to end up looking character driven in order to sell, by process of elimination we're left with creating well motivated characters early in the writing process.
In the seminar we go deeply into creating characters. The goal of learning about characterization is to gain proficiency in creating well motivated characters - characters that will engage your audience. We delve into inner motivation, character actions, and audience identification. Formulas are not the goal. Learning psychology is not the goal. This is not to learn a specific way to make characters, but to learn about what works in characterization so that when you draw a character you instinctively know what will work and what won't - proficiency.
From Five Power Points In Three Act Drama, in Writers Workshop Script Doctor, Copyright 1993,1994, Dorian Scott Cole
Why have a plot? Problems donít typically present themselves to real people in a logical sequence of events that build to a climax. It happens, but it isnít typical. Stories that are about real life - "slice of life stories" - are typically boring. They seem to go nowhere, and people seldom see the events in their life so in focus that they end things in a tidy way. No one really wants to see what happens in real life - it bores them, leaves them thoroughly confused, and ends with many things unresolved. But a plot brings the issues into sharp focus so the audience can feel them. Thatís the writer's goal: make the audience see and feel the issues which make up the conflict.
Stories are about the human condition - real life - and forcing the characters and issues into an artificial plot paradigm can wreck the story. It can easily look so contrived that it loses credibility. The writer can come through so strongly he might as well put his face on the screen and speak the words and move the puppets himself. And the rhythm of artificial paradigms can make the plot predictable, which spells death.
So if a writer needs to tell a story with a strategy, but forcing it into a formula destroys it, what can he do? Balance three elements in what I call honest writing.
Honest writing: 1) The characters must be free to make honest decisions and shape their lives in an honest way so the drama unfolds honestly. 2) The writer can create any situation he feels a character might create and will force the character to react dramatically, but honestly. 3) Shape the plot so it exposes the issues in an honest and intelligent way through conflict.
The issue isn't "realism." Realism is a very different thing than honest writing. The writer is a storyteller - his skill is in knowing how to tell a good story, but an honest one. How you shape your plot is your strategy for telling the story.
I like to think of crafting a story and plot like an architect designs a house. An architect knows people want certain things in a house - any house: Windows so they can see out. Doors so they can get in and out and block the weather. Rooms for different functions. Heat and air conditioning to temper the climate for comfort. Familiar and beautiful things to make their surroundings pleasant and interesting. Conveniences so they donít have to labor to carry on their daily existence. A solid structure that will support all of these things.
People need certain things in a story that will keep them in the fictional
dream: Interesting things to make the story comfortably hold their interest.
Convenient explanations so they donít have to labor to figure it out. Doors
to get into the story. Windows, so they can see what is going on around
them. Rooms for different functions or settings. Beautiful and interesting
settings. Different levels - upstairs and basement - for subplots. A three
act struture that will support all these things. These things need to be
there, but where we put them is what makes every house and every story
different - and different is more interesting.
A Strong Opening
There tends to be five very powerful points in three act drama that work well with modern audiences. The first is the door that gets them into the story. If you want to guarantee no one will read your story, neglect getting them in the door through a strong opening. You must hook the reader (agent, industry reader, producer, actor, audience) and get them interested. In the first sequence (the first two to five scenes), the reader must become so interested he canít put it down. There are several ways to do that, and I recommend presenting the conflicts in the story in the first scenes. Opening with conflict is very engaging. Setting up the story and characters with details is not engaging. The days when readers will wade through thirty minutes of establishing the characterís past and the slowly evolving situation are over.
If you canít begin with an engaging conflict, then you can use the artificial "hook." A hook is typically taken from a scene far into the story, when things get interesting, and put at the front to make the audience wonder how he got into the mess and how he is going to get out of it. Itís seeing the main character standing on the gallows. Or his car plunging off a bridge. But instead of seeing if he is rescued, the story then turns to the "beginning." This is a cheap and dirty way, but it works when youíre desperate. James Bond, an "action" character, often begins stories with an explosive action scene from an escapade he is just finishing. Itís actually a hook that has nothing to do with the story, but illustrates his character. This is another "cheap" way to do it.
Where is the beginning? Where the conflict begins is where stories really begin. All the "setup" and "characterization" that begin many stories are not the beginning. Both setup and characterization should be shown through conflict - through the unfolding drama. You donít have to show characterís traits with scene after scene that develop situations just to show traits. It is only necessary for the reader to be able to identify with the character, and traits can be shown later through a well developed plot.
There is no real need to go with a "cheap and dirty" opening hook. There are many plot elements involved in the main conflict that can be used to engage the reader. Life and death situations, mystery, suspense, and love, are all typical elements used to engage the audience in the first few pages.
The best way to engage the reader is to simply go right into the conflicts facing the main characters. Characterization can be done through the same strategy. Use conflict to show the characterís "character," if it is important to the plot. Suppose we have developed several characters. We choose two that interest us, Shawn, a suicidal sales representative, and Mary, an out of control business person. Could be a deadly combination. Will the out of control Mary push the suicidal Shawn over the edge - or push him to the point of facing himself and turning around? (Aha! A concept appears immediately!) Letís begin with scenes that illustrate their character, then throw them together to see if sparks fly.
Begin with a scene or sequence in which life piles up on Shawn: He pulls an eviction notice off his apartment door, he opens his mail and sees he is being sued for a large debt he hasnít been paying - heíll lose his only transportation - and his boss calls and tells him if he has another day with no sales, he is fired. He opens a window, looks down, backs up, runs toward the window, and throws his arms wide just in time to stop himself from sailing out. He pounds the wall in frustration. We know how difficult Shawn's situation is and the depth of his pain - his problem. This is Shaunís main conflict, the problem he will have to resolve. It comes from what Shaun wants - a successful life - and we see it through the conflicts in his life.
The next step could be to introduce your other important character. Mary is in business with her husband, and she is totally out of control with money. In the scene, her husband leaves the office grumbling about their business and marriage both teetering on the edge, and she replies flippantly that everything always works out if you let it. He slams the door, then two more doors. Shawn enters her office, wincing from the slamming doors. There is chemistry between them. She looks at his product samples and orders them all. Shawn exits to the lobby, ecstatic. Maryís partner/husband enters, sees the order, and shouts, "Weíre out of business and Iím divorcing you!" We see the size of Maryís conflict and what she must resolve. That is two major pieces of the plot, which is developing nicely.
We have the characters and their motivations established. Now to further develop the plot. Ms. Reckless Mary isnít quite ready for divorce. Mr. Suicidal Shawn renters to get her signature on the order, overhears their argument, feels guilty, reenters her office, and she cancels the order. The poor guy is devastated, but he is taken by her - sheís a poison with which he must flirt. So in three scenes, we have conflict showing one characterís problems, conflict showing a second characterís problems, and conflict showing the two on a collision course. That story development can take nine minutes, or thirty, but it will hold the reader because the conflicts in their lives create engaging dramatic action.