Logline Examples

loglineYesterday I answered a question about loglines. So today I wanted to give you some examples of loglines. Why, you ask.

Well, reading loglines is an interesting exercise because — if you don’t know how the movie unfolds — you are forced to imagine where the story might go.

Also, more importantly, observe how these long three-act feature movies  can be summarized in two sentences or less. As a writer, you will have to do the same for your story. A logline is an important “elevator pitch” if you are pressed for time.

Logline Examples from Produced Screenplays

logline-examples2THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION – Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.

RUSHMORE – A precocious private high school student whose life revolves around his school competes with its most famous and successful alumnus for the affection of a first grade teacher

THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS – A press agent, hungry to get ahead, is pushed by a ruthless columnist to do cruel and evil things, and is eventually caught in the web of lies that he has created.

BIG NIGHT  – Two very different brothers promote their struggling 1950s New Jersey Italian restaurant by inviting Louis Prima and his band to take part in a sumptuous dinner there.
[Read more…]

Logline, Premise, and Synopsis

A couple of days ago Fiiya submitted the following question:

Can you explain the difference between a logline, premise and synopsis?”

Sure thing, Fiiya! Thank you for your question. Here you go:

 Logline

logline premise synopsisFor the purposes of conducting business in Hollywood (selling a screenplay, pitching a TV show, negotiating distribution) a Logline is a one- or two-sentence summary of your script. If absolutely necessary, you can do three sentences, but it should be as short as possible. It is designed to concisely introduce all the important elements of your story like the main character and conflict. Here are three examples for your reference:

A man with no name and a man with a mission hunt a Mexican bandit for different reasons. – FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (Sergio Leone, 1965)

Naïve Joe Buck arrives in New York City to make his fortune as a hustler, but soon strikes up an unlikely friendship with the first scoundrel he falls prey to. – MIDNIGHT COWBOY (John Schlesinger, 1969)

A self-centered hotshot returns home for his father’s funeral and learns the family inheritance goes to an autistic brother he never knew he had. The hotshot kidnaps this older brother and drives him cross-country hoping to gain his confidence and get control of the family money. The journey reveals an unusual dimension to the brother’s autism that sparks their relationship and unlocks a dramatic childhood secret that changes everything. – RAIN MAN (Barry Levinson, 1988)

Notice how loglines do not spoil the ending. Their purpose is to hook and intrigue the viewer so they accept to read your script or watch your movie. In practical terms, think of a writer who wants to have his or her script read by an agent or producer, or a filmmaker who wants to sell the distribution rights to a studio. To convince them to read/watch it, in addition to the right connections and the ever-elusive opportunity, an amazing logline will help!
[Read more…]

The Elements of Screenwriting (Screenwriting Index)

It’s been said time and time again that the screenplay is the most important part of a movie. After all, that’s where the story comes from. And it’s the narrative with all its elements that make people laugh, cry, fear, etc. Below you will find some basic, some advanced concepts about the art of telling stories:

Articles and Lessons:

Related Blog Posts:

More lessons and articles coming soon! Want updates, then sign up for the Elements of Cinema newsletter or like our page on Facebook, or both!

If you wanna request a topic, drop us a comment below or send us an email.

Return to Homepage

 

What’s the Difference Between a Screenplay Outline and a Treatment

On my original introductory  post about the principles of screenwriting, I wrote that “in filmmaking, the story is first developed in the screenplay.” That is only half-true. Within the Phases of Film Production, it is true that the film only begins to exist with the screenplay (this “document” is needed for planning, casting, budgeting, scheduling, etc). However, within the world of screenwriting, the story can be developed in a multitude of different ways.

Over the weekend, April left this comment on the aforementioned post:

 

Hey there. I wanted ask what you understood the difference between an outline and a treatment to be. I’ve come to understand the treatment to be composed of sequences, character bios, and a logline, not in that order. And an outline to be composed of act breakdowns, and scenes. And feel that a good, thorough enough outline can be the basis for a script. What do you think? Maybe another difference is the purpose of each as well?”

Inspired by April’s questions, I wanted to shed light on these two elements of screenwriting. But before we focus on the key differences, let me give you an overview on both:

What is a Script Outline?

The outline is part of the writer’s creative process. It is a tool or a resource that will guide you through the completion of the screenplay. Due to its always-changing nature and its free-form style, your outline shouldn’t be shared with anyone but a writing partner or a mentor.

Technically, the script outline doesn’t have a specific format (since no one but you and your collaborators will see it). In my own scriptwriting, there are two kinds of outlines that I always use. I have developed them overtime, and they are what work for me.

One is a bullet-point outline with quick and short descriptions and actions (they can be one sentence or one paragraph long). The other is a scene-by-scene outline where I specify the scene locations, the characters in each scene, and my own goals for each scene as well as goals for the characters. (Defining specific goals allows me to focus on purpose and amp up the conflict of every scene.)

Examples of a Script Outline

Here’s how one of my bullet points might look like:

  • Tom lecturing to a Computer Science class in his alma mater (a course he took twenty years ago). Insight on himself, the FBI, and Cybercrimes. Perhaps followed by a Q&A. Jump to Instructor’s office. Instructor pours two glasses of Red Label, and he thanks Tom for “coming down, the kids love it.” + What else happens? Maybe Tom confesses that he is unhappy. Or maybe Instructor, asks “how’s your mom?” and Tom reveals that she thinks his brothers Carl is doing drugs or something.

(This is only one bullet point. My final outline will have dozens of them.)

Note how I mention a specific character (Tom), a setting (his alma mater), and the scene’s exposition  (“Insight on himself, the FBI, and Cybercrimes”), which will help with dialogue during the scripting phase. That is enough to get my writing started. There are typos and  there are “maybes.” It’s just an outline, anything could change. This bullet point also includes a second scene at the Instructor’s Office and hints at a predicament that might drive the story later on (Tom reveals that his mother thinks his brother Carl is doing drugs or something).

TIP: During the outlining, it’s okay to turn off your self-critic brain (hence the grammatical errors and my uncertainty of what’s really happening). Use the creative momentum to allow your story to go where it wants to go. You can evaluate and modify later.

Now my scene-by-scene outline is more specific and complete. Here’s an example of how I might outline a scene:

INT. HARVARD UNIVERSITY – LECTURE HALL  – DAY

Tom lecturing to a class jam-packed with students. His visual aid is a PowerPoint with the diagram “The Life of a Computer Bug.” It includes a flowchart with Hackers, Antivirus Companies, and other entities you’ve never heard of . He’s a guest lecturer. The instructor, his childhood friend, Abraham McCoy watches from the corner of the room. Today’s topic is cyber-crimes.

During the Q&A, one well-read student drills Tom about how the FBI collaborates with the NSA in spying on American citizens. Tom dodges accusations, trying to put a positive spin on the topic, maybe even joking, but other students join the first one: “Don’t you think every American deserves privacy?”, “Do you think it should be illegal as opposed to just unethical?”, “How would you like if your family was being spied on?”

SCENE GOAL: Explain how hackers profit from bugs (foreshadowing), establish Tom’s smarts and his technique, some insight on the FBI and Tom’s career as a Special Agent for the cyber division.

CHARACTER GOAL: Tom just wants to get out of there (he’s exhausted and worried about something else.)

VALUE: +/-

This outline is much more thorough and specific. The slugline or heading (INT. HARVARD UNIVERSITY – LECTURE HALL  – DAY) is in the same format I would use in a screenplay, which helps with the writing later on.

The description/action are just shorthand of the more elaborate stuff that’s coming later.

The two Goals are exactly what they sound like. They are infused with purpose, reminding me why this scene exists and what the character wants. And if I don’t know the goal, then maybe I should cut out the scene (I definitely won’t write it if I don’t know why it’s there).

The Value helps me quickly assess  the positive or negative outcome of the scene. In this case, the scene started out on a positive note (FBI Agent as a Guest Lecturer sharing his experience in a Prestigious University), but it spiraled down to what I call a negative charge (NSA and privacy lambasting). So when I see the +/- icon (meaning it went from positive to negative), I know that the conflict escalated. If I see -/+, that means some conflict was resolved. Sometimes I use a -/- if the character went from bad to worse. The +/+ usually indicates a scene without tension. They are fair game, but if you see too many of those, you’d better make sure you have enough conflict to sustain the film.

Again, there are different techniques to write an outline. Some would defend the notion that you should include everything  in the scene-by-scene outline, even the dialogue! Give it a try and see what works for you.

Why do I use Two Different Types of Outline

Every writer has to develop their own method. Our goals are often the same, to strike a balance between efficiency and creativity. Obviously, one of my main goals is to save time. Since the scene-by-scene outline I use is so robust and thorough it takes way more time than the quick bullet point outline I do first.

The reason I start with the bullet point is because it allows me to quickly evaluate the story I have. If something doesn’t feel right, then I wanna be able to identify the issue as a bullet point (that took me a couple of minutes to write) as opposed to an outlined scene (that took me maybe 15 or 30 minutes to write).  Do you catch my drift?

What is a Script Treatment?

Unlike the outline, which you write for yourself, the treatment is a document that writers show to producers and other prospective collaborators in order to quickly showcase the story and the feel of the project. If you are an established screenwriter with a solid treatment, you may be able to sell it. Ka-ching!

The advantage of the treatment for both writers and producers is that it’s a short document, usually between 3 and 5 pages long, so it takes less time to write it and read it. It is written in prose with long blocks of text. There’s no especial formatting for dialogue or scene heading. It looks and reads like a novel but in the present tense.

If you already have a screenplay, then the treatment becomes superfluous because if you were to sell something, you might as well sell the screenplay.

You should know that un-established writers have zero to no chance of selling a treatment, so the only use for it is as an outline to their script (BEFORE writing it). If you are trying to break in, then you must write the screenplay because that’s the way to prove yourself.

If you need an example of a treatment, there’s a link below this chart to the treatment for James Cameron’s Terminator.

Comparison Chart

OUTLINETREATMENT
FORMAT:Free form1Prose, present tense
PURPOSE:To help writers organize their thoughts and write the screenplayAlso to help writers write, but a treatment can be sold by established writers2
LENGTH:Not definedUsually between three to five pages long, but there’s no limit3
WHO WRITES IT:All writersSome writers
WHEN TO WRITE IT:Before the scriptBefore the script
WHO SEES IT:You and writing partnerPotential producers and studios
SALEABILITY:Unheard ofLottery odds
  1. Some people use cards, note pads, and white boards to outline. I’ve outlined on a mirror before. If you are in a restaurant when the light bulb goes on, a napkin works too, which is why there are no specific parameters to it.
  2. Here are the deets on a treatment  sale: http://deadline.com/2010/05/legendary-pictures-re-teams-with-clash-of-the-titans-scribe-on-pacific-rim-44335/
  3. Also on the link above, you will see that the sold treatment was 25 pages long. Many other sources also list The Terminator as having a 40+ page treatment written by James Cameron himself (click here to read it). The longer it is, the harder it will be for a producer to finish reading it. Keep that in mind.

5 Reasons the Three-Act Structure is Stifling Your Creativity and Killing Your Screenplay

fistful_of_dollarsAh, the movies. Don’t you love how subjective they are? That action flick you love is the same one your significant other hates. That melodramatic scene that brings your mother to tears makes you laugh uncontrollably in its silliness.

A field as abstract as screenwriting is an easy target for anyone who fancy themselves an expert to share their techniques as if they were the only truth under the sun. You gotta be careful when sifting through all the information out there. It’s not about the credentials of who’s giving the information. It’s more about the information itself, which is, again, subjective. With so much discrepant information available, all you can do is go with your gut feeling. Take everything with a grain of salt till you find an approach that makes sense to you.

The three-act structure is one such component of screenwriting that often ignites fiery, passionate debates from proponents of either side. Whereas some people swear by the three acts, others couldn’t care less. Here’s what one such opponent has to say:

The Greeks had no act structure in their plays. The plays had one act. The Romans had five acts. It’s arbitrary. It appeared in plays because of the need to have intermissions. People can’t sit for three hours in a theatre listening to an auditory experience without taking a break or going to the restroom. It appears in television shows because they want to have commercial breaks so they can sell something. None of which has anything to do with story.”

– James Bonnet

Mr. Bonnet, an accomplished story consultant and screenwriting coach with many books in print, shows no love for the three-act structure. Could he be right? Maybe… maybe…

In any regard, when I first started this website, I knew I would have to talk about the three acts. And I have – here! I did so because it is a “thing.” The three-act structure, whether effective or not, is ubiquitous, and I wanted all curious minds to learn what it is.

Now that I have dispensed some basic definitions and “rules” on the aforementioned article, it’s time I contradict myself and give you another perspective. Here are 5 reasons why you should be careful with the three acts:

1) The Audience Doesn’t Watch Acts, They Watch Characters

Acts and plot points are a roadmap for writers. Before you begin writing your screenplay, of course you wanna know where you are headed… where and how the story is gonna twist… where and when the main character’s gonna fall and tumble and have to pick himself up. But remember: the audience doesn’t watch acts, they watch characters.

Of course, characters rise or fall with every twist and turn. But what happens to them between act breaks is equally important. For example, a movie like Little Miss Sunshine (with an Academy Award-winning screenplay) has little emphasis on the three acts and a whole lot more focus on characters, creating exciting and memorable protagonists that make the film original and fun the whole way through. Each character has their own growth, stemming from goals and obstacles that are not necessarily connected to the act breaks.

Similarly, a scene like the Expectation vs. Reality scene in (500) Days of Summer is great because of the emphasis not in the acts but in the two main characters and their emotions.

Of course, in the context of the film, this is even more powerful because you know their history together.

2) The 3-Act is a Shortcut to Teaching, not a Technique for Writing

The three-act structure definitely has a place in Hollywood transactions and discussions on the craft. But the reason why you and I have heard of such concept has little to do with Hollywood and more to do with how easy it is to teach this structure. Professors and authors love it. You only need a white board, three lines, and some words to teach this all-encompassing, far-reaching “technique.”

The problem with it is that quite often that’s all they teach. I kid you not; I’ve had film professors who outlined this structure class after class after class… as if a writer could create a screenplay on that alone. Even some authors! They outline the structure on their books without giving you the proper warning or guidance.

More importantly, as far as the writing process goes, from original idea to final draft, establishing the three acts is something that you do in the outline phase of the script, well in advance before actually writing the script. So remember: having the three acts is the equivalent of a shopping list before you go to the supermarket. Though you have a list, you still need to walk aisle by aisle, check shelf by shelf. Screenwriting is hard work, and the three acts is the easy part.

3) The 3-Act Model Only Climaxes Twice

If you look at the three-act structure, you will notice that the plot points only occur twice in the movie: between Act 1 and Act 2, and then again between Act 2 and Act 3:

3-act-matrix

But Act 1 is roughly 30 minutes long, and Act 2 is 60 minutes long. And if you think you can wait up to 30 minutes to give your audience a jolt, then you are really asking them to take a nap between acts. Seriously.

What I mean is that you need more plot points in your script. At least more than two, but probably more than that.

A better alternative is too focus on sequences. A sequence is a coherent collection of scenes with beginning, middle, and end. It  runs around 15 minutes long. This is how the first sequence ends in Silence of the Lambs.

This is a plot point, a twist at the end of the first sequence, 17 minutes in. The sequence ends with this major emotional beat in which Dr. Lecter, one of the movie’s antagonists, reads Clarice’s intention like a laser and becomes offended, dismantling her mission, sending her back to square one. This is a major setback for Clarice.

If you plant a plot point every 15 minutes in your film, your audience will love you. Of course, you still have to use the scenes in between sequences to build up to it. Which brings me to my next point:

4) The Unit of a Screenplay is a Scene, Not an Act

While we are on the topic of great writing, don’t forget that the unit of a screenplay is a scene. You have to make each of them count. Scenes are so important that there’s a new heading (or slug line) before a new one. Scenes should not merely fill space between plot points. Each scene must be unique and move the story forward.

The overly-indulgent emphasis on the three-act structure is actually a disservice to many budding writers out there. Yes, you should know what it is, but the real craft of screenwriting is making one scene better than the next. Take a moment to think about your favorite scenes in the movies… or a scene from a movie you watched recently. Odds are that scene is not part of the defining moment of the act, namely the plot point.

Consider the training montage in Rocky:


Or when Clint Eastwood delivered this famous line in Dirty Harry:

These great scenes are as far from the act breaks as possible. The clip from Rocky is the culmination of a man’s many weeks of hard work and training. It is illustrative of Rocky’s limitless pursuit for a perfect body and technique, both of which he will need for the challenge of a lifetime. The clip from Dirty Harry is part of the main character’s introduction, early in the film. Harry is such a badass he doesn’t even spit out his hot dog!

And here’s another one that has even more substance to it:

What’s the scene really about? On the surface, it’s about learning karate. But it has other elements going on. There’s a sacred pact that’s made here (“I promise teach, you promise learn”). There’s also a clash of culture and age, combined with the reluctance of a boy who doesn’t see the value of the task at hand. It may not be the scene you remember walking out of the theater (I agree, the fighting is more fun), but it’s a scene nonetheless, and it’s a great one in the big scheme of things. In addition to foreshadowing later events, it also establishes conflict between two of the good guys.

When a producer is shopping for a script, acts help them understand the progression of the story. But scenes are the real building blocks of a movie. It’s how good your scenes are that’s gonna make or break your screenplay.

5) The 3 Acts are Subjective and Arbitrary

I have a friend who says that even a fart has three acts, though he refuses to tell me what they are specifically. His point is that anything can be divided in three parts. And he’s right. The three acts are code for beginning, middle, and end, which is everywhere, really. Within the field of filmmaking, some writers will argue that movie scripts should have four, five, or even seven acts! This can go as far as your imagination will allow it. Many authors — especially those pricy script analysts who charge top money for seminars and course packages — come up with different structures because they want to sound new and original. It’s a marketing strategy that helps them sell their products.

The truth is: the three-act structure can easily be broken into smaller acts. In other words, the 4-act, the 5-act, and the 7-act structure already exist within the 3-act structure. What changes is merely the definition and length of the act. Consider for example, the second act in the three-act structure. The three-act structure says you should break act II with a mid-point. Right then, you have 4 acts. If you break acts into sequences, now you can have up to eight acts.

Don’t get bogged down by terminology. A good screenplay is a good screenplay is a good screenplay.

Final Thoughts

There you have it. Five reasons (in my humble opinion) why the three-act structure is producing bad writers. It has nothing inherently wrong with it. The problem is how writers use it, focusing too much on it and neglecting the rest.

This post is not about denouncing the three acts. This post is about helping you understand that the three acts, though crucial to a script, is only a small piece of the puzzle. An over-emphasis on it can actually undermine your screenplay.

If you can remember only one thing from this reading, then remember this: screenwriting is hard; the three acts are easy. In other words, don’t stop at the three acts. Keep developing all other areas of your script till you end up with something as hard as diamond.

And because Clint Eastwood is such an awesome badass, here’s another great scene with him:

CONFLICT: The Stuff Stories are Made of

Conflicts are the problems and headaches we strive to avoid: a flat tire, a layoff, a break-up, and of course, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (yes, that is a real movie!).  The many instances of conflict have different names: tension,  rivalry, struggle, obstacle, clash, etc.

Sadly for humans, society overflows with them.  But for filmmakers, these “situations” propel the plot in the movies and serve as inspirations! One needs only to open the newspaper to find some real-life examples. Here are some of the headlines in Los Angeles as of this writing:

  • “‘Nobody Wins,’ Prosecutor Says of Conviction of 2 Women in Death of Kim Pham”
  • “LAPD Seeks Help Solving ‘Tragic’ Death of Good Samaritan Who Came to Aid of 3-Year-Old Child”
  • “UC Irvine Police Looking for Man Who Asked Female Students if He Could Massage, Photograph Their Feet”
from KTLA News

Of course, the news tends to focus on the nastiest cases, but deaths, assaults, and any other kind of crime are only one extreme of the spectrum. Towards the other end of the continuum there are the more down-to-earth frustrations we experience on a daily basis like having to do overtime at work when you already made plans to meet with that old flame from college who stood you up many years ago to go meet with the president of the Chess Club.

That’s what screenwriters do: when designing stories,  writers have to frame conflict into relevant context, which usually means amping the problem: a flat tire on the way to work, a layoff when your kids just started college, a break-up right before the prom, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space when, well, pretty much anytime.

As Seen at the Movies: Shawshank Redemption  (1994)

220px-ShawshankRedemptionMoviePosterIn the prison drama Shawshank Redemption, the protagonist Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is a banker convicted of murdering his wife and her lover.

Can you grasp how powerful this conflict is?

This is the kind of situation that affects every cell in someone’s body (pardon the exaggeration but think about it.) Not only does Andy have an external conflict (going to jail) but also an internal conflict (losing someone he loved). Andy spends the rest of the film trying to convince everyone that he is innocent, but how easy is that to do from prison?

If you haven’t seen this film yet, I highly recommended it. It is a master piece from top to bottom.

Types of Conflict

Here’s a couple of terminology that helps us define and classify the various kinds of conflict:

External vs. Internal

An external conflict is a physical obstacle that exists in the world of the story and prevents a character from achieving a goal, such as your computer crashing minutes before the deadline to upload your final exam.

In Little Miss Sunshine (2006), one external conflict the family has to overcome is the distance. They have to travel from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California.  But as a screenwriter,  what do you do? You throw even more obstacles their way:

little-miss-sunshine-van

On the other hand, an internal conflict is a psychological barrier or doubt that exists inside the character’s head that also prevents him or her from comfortably achieving a goal: Should I pursue the career of my dreams as a painter or obtain a more secure occupation doing something boring but that pays better like real estate? This is a dilemma many of us face.

It is worth noting that an internal conflict is not a mental issue (though it certainly can be). Many beginning screenwriters sometimes think erroneously that the internal conflict has to be some ailment like schizophrenia or depression. No so. All you need is a character torn between two impulses.

2) Source of Conflict

Another category for conflict is based on where the conflict stems from. Does it come from nature, society, a villain, or the protagonist himself? The writer has to know this from the get-go because the answer will be the primary driving conflict of the movie. I think these are self-explanatory, but here are some movie examples to help you understand this:

  • Man against Another Man (or a Monster/Villain)
    • High Noon
    • Any James Bond film
    • The Mummy
    • Silence of the Lambs
  • Man against Society:
    • The People vs. Larry Flynt
    • The Shawshank Redemption
    • 12 Angry Men
    • Gladiator
  • Man against Nature:
    • Jaws
    • Dante’s Peak
    • The Perfect Storm
    • Titanic
    • Gravity
  • Man against Himself
    • A Beautiful Mind
    • Good Will Hunting
    • The Lost Weekend

If these categorizations are not clear to you, or if you don’t know these movies too well and want me to elaborate more, let me know in the comments below this post, and I will try to make sense for you.

Bear in mind that these categories are not exclusive. You can mix and match them in anyway you think is suitable to your story. However, more often than not, one of these types will be more predominant. For instance: although I listed Gladiator under Man Against Society, I can definitely make an argument for Man Against Another Man as well. In fact, I think Man Against Another Man is more of the case for this film since the Emperor provokes most of the misfortunes in the protagonist’s life.

Compounded Conflict

It is your job as a screenwriter to create what I call Compounded Conflict, which is a simple nickname for conflict on top of conflict on top of conflict.

Why stop at Man Against Nature when you can have Man Against Society as well? It’s these combinations that make amazingly dramatic situations.

For example, the main conflict in Jaws is killing the shark (Man Against Nature). But how does that goal come about? Sheriff Brody merely wants to protect the citizens in his town. The easy solution would be to simply close the beach, but the Mayor is worried that reports of a shark attack would ruin the summer tourist season, so the Mayor overrules the Sheriff (Man Against Society and Another Man). Brody still wants to protect the townspeople, but the solution to hunt the beast himself is not an easy decision because he’s aqua-phobic  (Man Against Himself). When his son nearly escapes a shark attack, Brody finally decides to take matters in his own hand, finally placing the Man Against Nature front and center.

Look for it, and you will see Compounded Conflict in most movies. It does wonders for your story.

Conflict According to Irwin R. Blacker

I have this little book titled the Elements of Screenwriting, which I really like for its simple, unpretentious writing. The book itself is kinda small, which makes it great for writers learning the craft or anyone who wants a quick crash course. It was written by Irwin R. Blacker, a screenwriting professor at the University of Southern California, and here’s what Mr. Blacker has to say about conflict:

  • The premise is the basis of the conflict: The premise must be clear to the writer before he begins to write the script, although it will not be stated in the script
    • What is the premise in King Lear? Blind trust leads to destruction.
    • What is the premise in Macbeth? Ambition leads to its own destruction.
  • Locking conflict into a time frame heightens tension: The time lock adds suspense to the basic conflict by adding a fight against time.
    • The bomb will explode at six tonight.
    • Unless the carrier is found by two o’clock, the plague will spread.
    • Unless he is proven innocent by midnight, he will be executed.
  • Conflict need not be locked by violent action: The details of the conflict need not be stated, but the viewer must know there there’s a conflict and have some idea of its nature.
    • A boy asks if anyone knows where his father can be found and gets only shrugs and sneers.
    • A girl in worn clothes stares at a “Help Wanted” sign.
  • Domestic conflict is the most universal of conflicts: Tragic action is often not against enemy, or among neutrals, but among friends or family.
    • Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother.
    • Blanche du Bois (A Streetcar Named Desire) is raped by her brother-in-law and goes mad.
  • Conflict in drama is not necessarily violent: while violence makes for good scripts, a script need not be violent, not even emotionally violent to work
    • The failure of the father and daughter to understand each other On Golden Pond.
    • The inability of Marty, an ugly, 36-year-old butcher, to get a date.

-Irwin R. Blacker

These are just short citations from Mr. Blacker’s book. If you are interested in screenwriting, I highly recommend the Elements of Screenwriting. Obviously, Conflict is just one of the many elements featured in the book. To be honest with everyone, I think the retail price of $16 is a little too much. Unless you are buying it as a gift for a friend, I’d just buy an used copy from Amazon (costs 1 cent plus shipping and handling).

And don’t forget, conflict is the root of all comedy:

Foreshadowing

Also referred to as “planting and payoff,” foreshadowing is a highly effective plot device that helps make the story feel more plausible. It consists of an introduction early in the movie of something that will be extremely relevant as the plot unfolds. Without foreshadowing, the audience would refuse to accept a beat of the story, deeming it implausible.

James Bond movies contain classic examples of foreshadowing. The character Q, always present in the set-up of the movie, introduces gadgets, weapons, and cars to 007 (planting). In the first act, those gadgets aren’t much needed. But towards the end, Bond always uses them to fight villains (payoff). Without the proper foreshadowing in the beginning, the audience would feel cheated and confused.

As a general rule, the villain is the only character in the script that may be “lucky.” The heroes will suffer misfortune most of the time, thus if he or she has an object or a skill that is vitally important in killing the villain, planting it early on is required.

Spoiler Alert: The following contains story spoilers, used here to illustrate the technique (but the movies below are old classics, so maybe you have already seen all of them. If not, you should!).

 Foreshadowing an Object

The James Bond example mentioned above fits into this category. The cars, weapons, and gadgets are objects presented in Act I. Foreshadowing an object is required when the character in question is not likely to already have it. For instance, unless the character is a policeman or a criminal, introducing a gun beforehand is needed. In Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991), the gun that inflicts a wound at the end of Act I is introduced much earlier, during the first ten minutes of the film.

revolver_thelma

In Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), the foreshadowing is more subtle but equally valid. Somewhere in Act II, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) trips on a pressurized air tank, which he curses. In Act III, Brody shoves that same tank into the shark’s mouth and makes it explode.

Foreshadowing a Skill or Talent

In James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), an early scene shows the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) talking into a police radio imitating a dead policeman’s voice, thus establishing this skill. Later in the film, the Terminator reproduces Sarah’s (Linda Hamilton) mother’s voice in order to discover Sarah’s location.

In Cinema Paradiso (1988), 9-yeard-old Toto’s (Salvatore Cascio) constant attention of how Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) threads the film and operates the projector gives him the experience he needs to operate the projector himself. When Alfredo suffers an accident, the young boy replaces him at the projection room.

In Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984), a voice over narration by Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) early in the picture, coupled with other visual cues, foreshadows Mozart’s (Tom Hulce) proficiency of the craft: “This man had written his first concerto at the age of four! His first symphony at seven! A full-scale opera at 12!” When Mozart humiliates Salieri at the piano, the audience understands how.

Foreshadowing Behavior

Justifying someone’s action is necessary when their behavior would otherwise be considered contrived or fake amidst the circumstances established in the movie.

About halfway through Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), an expository flashback presents Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) talking to a young Butch (Chandler Lindauer) about a gold watch (that quickly turns into a minor MacGuffin to Butch’s character). Captain Koons explains to Butch that the gold watch first belonged to his great grandfather, and it has been with the men of the family since. Later, when Butch (Bruce Willis) learns that his girlfriend forgot the watch in their apartment, he decides to return home even though mob hit men are on the lookout for him. Had the gold watch’s history not being explained, Butch’s decision to go back would be unbelievable.

Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) introduces Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) as an ambitious and impatient stockbroker. After a negotiation with a wealthy businessman over the phone, Bud looks to a friend and says: “You know what my dream is? It’s to one day be on the other end of that phone.” This little line of dialogue explains much of Bud’s behavior throughout the movie, including his illegal activity.

Exposition & Backstory

I remember when I started writing screenplays in my teens, Exposition and Backstory were two concepts that used to really baffle me. The reason being because everyone always tells you that when writing a screenplay you have to  “always move the story forward, always move the story forward.”*

For the longest time, I didn’t understand how I could move the story forward and at the same time deliver backstory. In my mind, forward and backstory were two contradictory notions: how can you go forward and backward at the same time? I thought (erroneously)  that forward meant future-centric, that I should focus only on what was gonna happen in the next minute, or the next day, or the next week in the lives of the characters. I thought that talking about the character’s past was taboo. But that’s not true. Revealing the character’s past is an essential part of screenwriting. This makes the audience connect to characters in ways that wouldn’t be otherwise possible.

*Move The Story Forward

The gist of the always-move-the-story-forward adage is that the writer can never waste the audience’s time with pointless or irrelevant scenes or beats. In this sense, it’s totally possible to move the story forward while delivering backstory as long as the backstory is relevant to the scene or character.

The Purposes of Exposition

Though exposition comes in a variety of colors and shapes (more on this below), their goal in most scenes is one these:

  • Teach the audience about a character and his or her world: is the story world quaint and peaceful or scary and violent? Did all the relatives of the main characters die of old age or were they shot during a bank hold-up? Think Batman. How did Bruce’s parents die?
  • Allow the audience to connect with a character by learning more about his or her traumas and pains: dissatisfaction is something that everyone feels sooner or later. Whether we are unhappy with our careers, love life,  level of education, what have you, everyone is unhappy with an aspect of their lives. Remember Luke Skywalker in the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)? The adventurer in Luke has his hands tied due to his obligations in the farm, although he really wants to travel and explore. Many of us have been in Luke’s shoes at some point in our lives. So here we are watching this sci-fi about intergalactic wars, and we understand exactly what the main character is feeling. That’s a connection.
  • Inform the audience of a specific fear or skill a character possess: this is a kind of foreshadowing that reveals a trait that will be relevant as the story unfolds:  Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, Romeo and Juliet discuss death, Ripley can operate a powerloader, etc.

Exposition Through Dialogue

The most common way to give exposition is with conversations. Lines of  dialogue can offer important information about a character’s background.

Early in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), the family comes together in the exposition-packed dinner scene. That scene offers great backstory and explanation on the behavior of many characters: Dwayne (Paul Dano) doesn’t speak because he’s made a vow of silence as an attempt to show his devotion towards becoming a test pilot. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker and a life coach, who’s been trying get a book published. Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), by far the person that gives the most exciting speech while explaining to Oliver (Abigail Breslin) why he tried to commit suicide, traces back to a ruined academic career and a devastating break-up with the man of his dreams, also revealing his sexual preference.

In L.A. Confidential (1997), a conversation between Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and Lieutenant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) reveals the reason why Exley became a cop: his dad was shot six times by a criminal who thought he was above the law. To the question “Why’d you become a cop?”, asked by Exley after his poignant discourse, Vincennes simply replies, “I don’t remember.” This dialogue separates both men, as their motivations to become cop were different, implying their different, perhaps even conflicting senses of justice.

In an early scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) gets ups from his bed, approaches the window, looks through the blinds, and utters: “Saigon… Shit.” A two-word line is enough to present the location of the movie and Willard’s overall satisfaction about being there.

Exposition Through Mise-En-Scene

A less used but equally acceptable method is exposition through the creative use of décor and props. Any object that bares information on a character can be considered expository. A certificate on the wall may indicate that so-and-so is a lawyer or a doctor. Photographs can denote past involvement by a group of people.

In one scene from Danish short film The Charming Man (Der Er En Yndig Mand, 2002), Lars Hansen (Martin Buch) is shown applying for a job. While filling out an application form, he checks the “single” box, thus establishing his relationship status.

 

As Seen at the Movies:
High Noon (1952)

High noon mise-en-scene

Notice the grime and dust on the wall, where the flag was. This careful construct of the set implies that the judge has been there in that office for a long time. But now that Frank Miller is coming, the judge is leaving. It may indeed be just a detail, but the grime and dust communicate something. Moreover, the judge’s action indicate that the situation is serious and potentially dangerous. Thus, he is running away.

This is visual storytelling. The judge could have said something like “I’ve been in this town for a long time… Now I must leave.” But instead, this information is suggested through the elaborate mise-en-scène and his actions. This allows the dialogue to be more powerful by not being redundant.

 

Exposition Through Text

The most obvious type of exposition is through the use of text or title cards. This incarnation is purely expository and rarely dramatic.

A famous example is the static title card followed the crawling text in the intro to George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977). The title card first introduces the time and space:

The subsequent crawling text establishes organizations (the evil Galactic Empire) and characters (Princess Leia). For a movie this complex, these title cards are a welcomed device.

A simpler version of text exposition is “once upon a time” or “three months later.”

Texts are also preferred when exposition on a more formal matter is necessary. Quentin Tarantino makes good use of it in the beginning of Pulp Fiction(1994), when a title card defines the word “pulp.”

Exposition Through Narration

Narration is one of the most emotional ways to give exposition. Narrators can be either an omniscient, disembodied person that sees all, or they can be characters that exist in the world of the movie, sometimes narrating their own story, sometimes narrating others’ stories.

In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Red (Morgan Freeman) describes how he sees Andy (Tim Robbins) – a technique that allows for a better scrutiny of Andy’s persona. If Andy were talking about himself, the narration would come out as awkward and maybe self-important. But Red offers a third-person view that matches what the audience sees. Also, since Red had been in prison longer, he can share knowledge about life behind bars and predict what Andy is going through:

RED: “The first night’s the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born, skin burning and half blind from that delousing shit they throw on you, and when they put you in that cell… and those bars slam home… that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”

Note that the voice-over allows for a more poetic tone of the descriptions (“naked as the day you’re born” and “those bars slam home”). Writing narration is extra hard because it allows the characters to be more colorful than they would in a dialogue. The writer must never be redundant to the point where he shows and says the same thing. Crafty narration enhances picture and elaborates the story.

In Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) opens the movie with a humorous narration about the population of New York, narrowing it down to the company for which he works and, finally, himself, disclosing his work hours and even salary.

Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) brings a twist to the norm. The main character, Ada (Holly Hunter) is mute, but she’s also the narrator:

ADA: “The voice you hear is not my speaking voice – but my mind’s voice. I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why. Not even me.”

In all the films above, the narrators are also characters in the movie, thus having influence on the plot. The other type of the narrator is the omniscient or disembodied narrator, who’s not part of the filmic world, but that “knows all.”

Network (1976) opens with a lengthy exposition by a disembodied narrator. The 2-minute narration condenses more than six years of a character’s live. Observe how much information and backstory is revealed in so little time:

NARRATOR: “This story is about Howard Beale, who was the news anchorman on UBS TV. In his time, Howard Beale had been a mandarin of television, the grand old man of news, with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share.

In 1969, however, his fortunes began to decline. He fell to a 22 share. The following year, his wife died, and he was left a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share. He became morose and isolated, began to drink heavily, and on September 22, 1975, he was fired, effective in two weeks.

The news was broken to him by Max Schumacher, who was the president of the news division at UBS. The two old friends got properly pissed.”

 

Exposition Through Flashback

Another alternative is exposition through flashback, a technique that should be used mainly to replace major story moments that cannot be reduced to a simple conversation.

Casablanca (1942), for instance, has a lengthy flashback that shows how Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) met, plus the romance they lived in Paris. There’s no way an exposition so long would be accomplished with such mastery through dialogue – flashback was indeed necessary.

Another possibility for flashback is when a character thinks something so intimate that he or she doesn’t talk about it. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a couple of flashbacks show Clarice’s (Jodie Foster) memories with her dad.

A Word of Caution

Quite often, we talk about “show, don’t tell” which is one of the most enduring notions in filmmaking and screenwriting. But I wanted to warn you that you shouldn’t use that concept to justify flashbacks. What I mean is that, although you may think that flashbacks (showing) should replace dialogue (telling) this is not always the case because flashbacks are sometimes a detraction to the flow of a scene or sequence. Remember, move the story forward.

So when should you resort to flashbacks? Like everything else in filmmaking, there are no fast-and-hard rules. My advice is avoid flashbacks when you can and use them sparingly. For instance, if you can reveal backstory through dialogue, then maybe dialogue is enough. However, if you think that you can dramatize it better in a flashback, then flashback could be the way to go. Decision, decision, decisions. Isn’t storytelling awesome?

 

Exposition Through Music

Another great way to reveal backstory is through music. This approach, however, may not be called upon by the writer, unless music is an essential part of the plot. More often than not (as we see occasionally in Disney movies) the director or composer will select key moments of the plot to augment through music. From Snow White to Frozen, Disney has always amazed everyone in this department.  But here’s one of my favorite non-Disney example.

During the initial credits of High Noon (1952), the Academy Award winning-song Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling plays and introduces the plot:

Do not forsake me O my darlin’
On this our wedding day.
Do not forsake me O my darlin’
Wait, wait along.

The noonday train will bring Frank Miller.
If I’m a man I must be brave
And I must face that deadly killer
Or lie a coward, a craven coward,
Or lie a coward in my grave.

Remarkably, before any of the characters utter a single word, the second stanza from the song already establishes the premise: A deadly killer is coming in the noonday train, and the main character must kill him or die.

Some Thoughts…

By its very nature, expositions are about the past. And thus that means that they could slow down the progression of the story. Therefore, screenwriters must be aware of when to use them, and the effect each of them has in the story.

Film Trivia

During principal photography of The Silence of the Lambs, director Jonathan Demme and his crew were ready to fly to Montana to shoot on location the flashback of a young Clarice attempting to runaway, when, after shooting the dialogue between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), in which Starling mentions the runaway attempt, Demme realized there was no point in cutting to another location when the exposition worked so well through the actors’ acting and dialogue, so he canceled the flight. In this case, less was more.

The main purpose of exposition is to transform characters into 3-dimentional creatures by allowing the audience to understand them and therefore participate in their emotions. However, sometimes exposition can be used to foreshadow or justify someone’s skills or behavior.

In Thelma & Louise (1991), Louise (Susan Sarandon) shows great fear towards going to Texas, a place that brings undisclosed bad memories to her. It is later implied (but never revealed) that Louise was raped in Texas, which explains why she shot the man that was seconds away from raping Thelma during the first plot point. In this case, a later exposition validates an earlier act that would otherwise be considered arbitrary and implausible.

THEME: What Ties it All Together

If plot is what’s on the surface of a film, easily visible to the audience, then the theme is what’s under the surface… kinda hidden like a secret gem, waiting to be uncovered. Themes are sometimes called a life lesson or a message, and the best ones are always subtle.

Some authors claim that themes are one word long:


“The theme of a story is the aspect of the ‘human dilemma’ that it will explore. Betrayal, loyalty, self-worth, ambition, jealousy, hypocrisy, obsession, alienation — these are all valid themes that could explore. Note that there are no verbs involved, no value judgements inherent in potential themes. Something like “love conquers all” or “jealousy destroys from the inside” is a value-charged thesis rather than a theme.” – David Howard, author of How to Build a Great Screenplay: A Master Class in Storytelling for Film

While other authors argue that themes could be a sentence long:

“WITNESS has a point of view. Love cannot bridge the gap of two different worlds. In THE AFRICAN QUEEN, the opposite is true. Love can bridge the gap of two different worlds. […]  The message in CHINATOWN is this: You can get away with murder if you have enough money.”- David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script.

Though these two writers define theme differently, their interpretations are still pretty similar. Notice how Trottier’s examples still have  thematic words like “love” and “money” that  define what the movie is about. And regardless of what you call it, your film will always have a moral and a message. The important thing is that you know what you are trying to convey with your film, so that you can be consistent and effective.

However,  Trottier urges your caution: “This moral is not a sermon and it is not preached. Often, you don’t know that this moral or message is when you start scripting your story. Not to worry – you’ll know before you’re through. Just keep writing. CAUTION: There is a danger in focusing on the movie message. You run the risk of writing a preachy script.”

And on this  point both writers agree. Howard calls it a “thesis” and you don’t wanna bang your audience’s head too much with it. They paid $20 for entertainment, not a sermon.

Theme is NOT the Same as Conflict!

I wanted to make a special mention of this because I have seen many professors and publications make this error. If you ask someone for an example of a theme, they might answer: “Man vs. Nature” or “Man vs. Himself.” In my opinion, these are not themes but types of conflict. Types of conflict are the framework for any plot, but they are different from the theme. Below are the four most famous types of conflict:

  • Man vs. Man (Dirty Harry, The Terminator, Witness)
  • Man vs. Himself. (Finding Forrester, The Truman Show)
  • Man vs. Nature (Dante’s Peak, Noah)
  • Man vs. Society (High Noon, Milk)

Some of these overlap. High Noon, for instance, is both a Man vs. Society and a Man vs. Man kind of plot.

Theme as Unity

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) tells the story of a handicap photographer (James Stewart) who suspects a murder has happened in his apartment complex after noticing abnormal events unfold from his living room window. This is the forefront of the movie; its plot. Nobody gets out of the theater not knowing that.

The theme, however, is subtle. Most people that have watched Rear Window may or may not have grasped what its theme is. Since themes are delicate and subjective, scholars and critics may occasionally debate. But I think that in Rear Window, the prominent theme is relationship. Even more so than romance because romance implies good moments. But relationship also contains the nitty-gritty stuff: arguments, despair, and solitude.

In Rear Window, the apparently disjointed string of events is held together through this theme, which furnishes it with unity.

The romance between Jeff and Lisa (Grace Kelly) is too obvious an example, but even a superficial analysis of some of the neighbors is enough to elaborate the underlying relationship theme:

  • In the beginning of the movie, a newlywed couple moves into an apartment. All joy. Blinds drawn implies a honeymoon in progress. But as the story unfolds, their marriage deteriorates.
  • Miss Torso, a lovely ballet dancer, is often “doing a woman’s hardest job: juggling wolves.” With so many suitors, her options are plenty, though she often dismisses them all.
  • Mrs. Lonelyhearts is an old, single woman who seemingly failed to attract a man into wedlock during her prime years. Clearly disturbed, she hosts dinners for two even though no one joins her. Alone, she addresses an invisible man, product of her imagination, with whom she dines.

Clearly all these side characters and sub-plots were created to develop the theme. Furthermore, the heart of the plot – the murder – also draws a parallel to it, as one of the possible causes for the assassination was the bitter relationship in which the murderer and his victim lived in.

Theme as a Lesson

Besides providing unity and tying the story together, theme can also exist to send a message or teach a lesson to the audience. In the 2009 movie (500) Days of Summer, one of the lessons expressed is: if someone wants love, then they need to take action and chase it.

500-days-of-summer

Like in Rear Window, one of the themes in (500) Days of Summer is relationship.

From the beginning, the movie builds this lesson until it’s clearly stated in the ending: “Love doesn’t just happen.” This concept also illustrates the main character’s arc. At the movie’s beginning, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the type of guy who waits for love instead of making it happen. At the end, Tom finally takes action and is rewarded.

A Little Trivia

“If you have a message, call Western Union” is a famous sentence sometimes quoted by producers to express their disdain for  themes or messages or lessons in the movies. Some producers simply don’t like to talk about it because it’s too brainy.

The quote is often misattributed to the famous producer Samuel Goldwyn (The Best Years of Our Lives, Guys and Dolls), but there’s no consensus as to who said it first.

I wish I would know how most producers, directors, and writers approach the idea of theme. Is that a priority in their movies? Or do they just allow a theme to emerge as the story progresses?

Do you agree with the themes and lessons above? Or could (500) Days of Summer be about something else? What about Rear Window? As I mentioned, themes are subjective and open for interpretation. I would love to hear your thoughts below.

 

MacGuffin

What is it and when to use?

The MacGuffin (also spelled McGuffin) has always been one of my favorite “techniques” in screenwriting, and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s because of its funny-sounding name, or maybe it’s because it screams Hitchcock as Hitchcock screams for it, or maybe it’s because it’s all-around awesome in its simplicity. But what is it?

Simply put, a MacGuffin is an object of interest around which the plot revolves. The term was made popular by director Alfred Hitchcock, who constantly used both the name and the technique.

In Hitchcock’s Words

“We call it the ‘MacGuffin.’ It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.”

 A Valuable Object

In its most common appearance, the MacGuffin is an expensive object desired by many characters. This has been done to death. In this version, the MacGuffin can be a diamond, a relic, and a pricy artifact. In Pulp Fiction, it’s the suitcase loaded with you-don’t-know-what.

An Object of Interest

When the MacGuffin is not a valuable object, it is often an object of interest – something that both heroes and villains want to get ahold of.

 

As Seen at the Movies

In North by Northwest, the MacGuffin is the microfilm – a clandestine copy of confidential Government documents. The villains are spies trying to smuggle the microfilm out of the United States. Notice that the secret in the microfilm is not important. We know neither what the microfilm contains nor who copied the documents. What matters is that it exists and its value is clearly established.

A Character

In a more poetic understanding, a MacGuffin doesn’t always have to be a physical object. It could be a character.

As Seen at the Movies

In Good Will Hunting, the MacGuffin is Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a peculiar young man. He is a genius but also a bully. He doesn’t have much self-control, yet his intellect could make him a millionaire. He works as janitor at MIT.

The other characters all revolve around Will. A professor tries to become his mentor, but first he has to mollify Will. Will’s friends like his company, but Will’s best friend really wishes that he would use his gift to get a good job.

Good Will Hunting Matt Damon

 

Are MacGuffins absolutely necessary?

Well, no. Many movies work without one. But they do add interest and dynamism to the plot. Your screenplay will determine whether or not you need an object or another element to make the story whole.

Many young filmmakers focus on people too much and overlook how important objects can be. Objects, in general, and MacGuffins, in particular, allow the filmmaker to add variety to their shots, as in this shot from Psycho. psycho money

Also, if you don’t have a MacGuffin to drive your film, consider having it to drive some scenes. This can add dramatic tension to a sequence. In the animation The Secret of NIMH (1982), excitement is added to an otherwise simple chase, as Mrs. Brisby (a mouse) has to elude Dragon (a cat) while also not losing an envelope that contains her pneumonic son’s medicine. Instead of simply running, Mrs. Brisby now has to make sure that she won’t lose the medicine. This is good storytelling.