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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Viggo Cut to the Chase - Can You?

Cut to the chase. You’ve heard that phrase before, it’s definitely a movie-term but now it’s used colloquially to mean, in general – GET TO THE POINT ALREADY.

At the Creative Screenwriting Expo last November, I took a break and walked the exhibition hall with my friend and mentor, Lee Zahavi at Script Shark. As we marveled at all the gee-gaws available for writers, Lee looked at me and laughed - just write a good script, right?

With the strike going on, conjecture is going crazy - what will the market be like after the strike? What is like during the strike? Will the climate be harder or easier for writers looking to break in? The answer is simple. Just write a good script. And a huge determining factor of a good script is how fast you cut to the chase.

Sometimes I find myself reading a script with that growing feeling – what already?? What is this script about? Just the other day I read a script about a mother/daughter relationship and I was on page fifteen thinking, okay, enough set up already! Where is this story going? Now – if I were an executive in charge of reading or tossing that script, I would have tossed it for sure.

I have been watching a lot of movies lately - I mean A LOT - and I've noticed that in general, regardless of whether or not I liked the movie as a whole (okay, full disclaimer, I hated THE BUCKET LIST), the story does giddy-up within the first ten minutes or so.

Why, just this evening, I watched EASTERN PROMISES - oh Viggo - and sure enough the movie starts off with a murder and switches straight to a pregnant teen dying in childbirth. Boom. Giddyup. And so the story begins. In 3:10 to YUMA, Christian Bale's problems are apparent and writ large almost immediately.

Maybe we all have ADD these days - certainly our lives are busier and contain more stimulation than they used to, I think that's a given. And so current movies reflect that. Screenwriters have less time for set up - audiences like you to cut to the chase.

Make sure that the Big Idea of your script is introduced as quickly as possible. Remember, set up and backstory can happen simultaneously with moving the story forward. Prelude and backstory do not interesting script pages make. Scripts are terrific reading if you have ADD – but if your script can’t deliver on that and be more or less instantly compelling – you’re in trouble.

How do you know if you’re got too much prelude? Pull the first six (full) scenes from your opening pages and answer these questions:

Does this scene movie the story forward in a distinct way, i.e., does it have a BEAT?

Can this scene be combined with another scene?

Does this scene contain the DNA of the premise?

Another thing you might do is give your script the page ten test. Read over the first ten pages and then ask yourself:

Where is this story going?
What is the Big Idea of this story?
Have I met the main character yet?
Could I articulate what the main conflict is probably going to be?

Readers who read several scripts a week can answer those questions easily when a script is really working. Yeah sure, some genres and some scripts might need another few pages to really rev up…but it’s better to err on the side of revving up pretty quickly and elaborating and filling in along the way than to have too much prelude.

Not only audiences, but Hollywood has a serious case of ADD – reading, execs, agents – everybody. So take off your tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and set down that pipe. This is not a novel. This is blueprint for a movie. And this is an industry that can be quite brutally competitive. So – cut to the chase – why am I reading your script?

ShowHype: hype it up!

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Anonymous said...

I've too watch many movies, and read many scripts recently. Maybe it's just me, I don't really want to know what the movie/script is all about in the first 10 minutes/pages. As long as the story flows and engages me with visuals and dialogues or characters, I'm willing to take a ride with the storyteller. Not that I disagree with you, certain genres do need to cut to the chase, but knowing or guessing the story sort of ruins the experience, yes? That's why very rarely that I like formulaic Hollywood movies.

Jake Hollywood said...

I think Anonymous is on to something. And I agree that for the most part (and this is sadly true) most films made these days are boring and uninspired. Right from the very beginning you know (and if you don't you're pretty damn stupid) exactly where a particular story is headed, you can predict not only how it will end, but also--almost without error--which scenes and dialog come next...

I think though, that people like this. They like the safeness of todays movies, they feel comfortable with the structure and predictability. Even you script readers like it. Oh, you cry for writers to be different and daring, but you also know what your bosses want. And so you give it to them and the result is always the same: dullness with a side order of the unimaginative attached.

Overall, and for the most part anyway, there hasn't been a film that I've seen that I haven't been able to predict where it was going and how it would end.

Like Anonymous I detest formulaic movies. I understand why they're made, and movie entertainment isn't always a bad thing, it's just not my thing:

Q: What is it about the multi-story, non-linear structure that you find so appealing?

A: This was a choice I took for this story in particular. I always want to find the way a story has to be told. I wasn't intending to write this structure, until I read an old, unfinished novel I wrote when I was 24 or 25 years old. It went back and forth all the time. And I have a short story that has been recently published that also goes back and forth all the time. I think this is the way we tell stories on a daily basis -- we never go linear. We always go back and forth from one point to the other. For example, if I want to tell you how I met my wife, I will never begin at the very beginning…I think this is the natural way to tell stories. My worry was to have emotional continuum. There are huge gaps of narrative information, but I want to have an emotional continuum. I was trying to balance every scene very carefully, and make them contradictory.

I like the realism of telling stories in a non-linear fashion, it adds depth and intimacy and in its own way involves (and asks) the audience to be a participant in the film rather than merely watching s the pictures move through the air.

Ahhhh...but that's just me. And I beat to a different drummer as it were.

Julie Gray said...

I am talking about scripts written by aspiring writers in which, after most of the first act, I have absolutely no idea what story is being told. Writers who take a first act to set up characters (and not very well) and pages and pages of aimless dialogue and scenes that go nowhere. I am definitely an indy film lover and I agree with what you both say - but novice writers need to know how to get out of the gate and begin their story. This is not a case of formulaic versus not formulaic but solid story telling. New writers often don't know when or how to giddyup and start their story. My take and therefore posts are almost always aimed at aspiring writers learning the craft of screenwriting. If you've read enough novice scripts, you know what I mean.

Jake Hollywood said...

Well, what you're talking about is nearly true of every aspiring writer. It's true of aspiring journalists, poets, short story writers and novelists. The film writer as novice writer always struggles to find his or her voice in conjunction with how to tell stories. Sure the novice writer has seen hundreds of films, maybe thousands, but writing them isn't the same. Nor is editing what you've written, trying to find the meat of a story, the important guts of the story--something which is even more difficult to learn but rarely isn't the focus of aspiring writers.

Sometimes the art of storytelling comes easy to the aspiring writer, sometimes not, sometimes not at all. People think it's easy, they watch some films and say to themselves, "I can do that. I can't do any worse anyway." Maybe they can, most often not...

Harder still isn't the telling of story, but the deciding of what is story. And if aspiring writers understood or learned what a story is first, maybe you wouldn't be reading so many bad scripts and the viewing public wouldn't be seeing so many mediocre films.

And I disagree (only slightly) with you about your use of the term "craft." I prefer "art." A slight, but important difference.

Julie Gray said...

How about art and craft? Et voila. Compromise.

Jake Hollywood said...

Obviously you and I have never worked together, I don't like compromise, except in the case of necessity, to further or serve the story.

Julie Gray said...

well I guess I better stick with my writing partner :)