Make Your Movie Leap Off the Page
By Neil Landau
- Command the Read
Even the most accomplished, brilliant screenplays are, by definition, unfinished works, as they require a director’s vision to be made whole. Consequently, what you are writing is a written document first, which, God willing, will find its way into the hands of enthusiastic P.W.M (that’s People With Money). You, as screenwriter, need to find a way not only to tell a story, but also to present that story in an engaging narrative style from page one. Develop your voice and attitude as off-screen narrator to lead your reader by the hand through the entire script. Without mentioning the camera or using any other cinematographic language, find a way to “direct” your movie on the page. Your goal is to make your incomplete movie a complete, satisfying, easy read. Remember, you are catering to readers who do not want to read your screenplay. So once you have their eyes on your “FADE IN,” don’t lose them with a dull, flat, predictable style. Yes, the story must absolutely rivet them. But so must the manner in which you tell the story. Never underestimate the value of the entertaining read: lean and mean, fast and furious. If they can put your script down, they will.
- Defy the Formula
By now, everybody has read all the screenwriting books and knows just what to expect in terms of “inciting incidents,” “plot points,” “mid-points,” and all that structural jazz. As a result, screenplays have become formulaic, structurally predictable, and mechanical. You might say, “Your plot points are showing.” Structure needs to be seamless, invisible. You need to defy your readers’ expectations of What Happens Next, both plot-wise and structure-wise. What this means is your plot points must unfold in new and surprising ways. Readers crave neatness, symmetry, the tying up of loose ends. Never give them what they want. Guide your readers through your plot by constantly dangling a carrot in front of their faces. Present each scene with unfinished business that cries out to be completed—but isn’t. End your scenes on discordant notes, so your reader is compelled to turn the page and read the scene after it, and the scene after that. Readers yearn for resolution, order. Life is about compromise, mystery, wonder, and constant change. If you give your readers tidy, ordered structure, they’ll be disappointed because it won’t feel organic. Life is messy and unpredictable. Structure your stories to create the feeling that virtually anything could happen next. Your readers will not be comfortable with this approach—which is exactly your intent. When we feel too comfortable we get restless and bored. We want to be surprised and even shocked by movies, or we may as well stay at home in our Barcaloungers and be remote control zombies. How do you keep your story structurally surprising? By focusing on your characters’ relationships to structure. Your “plot points” emerge as crises for your characters because they force your characters to change, and while each crisis presented in your screenplay should be surprising, your characters’ unique and very specific approach to crisis management is what keeps your reader hooked—not the crisis itself.
- Dig as Deeply into Your Characters as Possible, then Go Deeper
Shallow people are boring and don’t deserve to have movies written about them. You’ll need to do a character autopsy. Really roll up your sleeves and get in touch with what makes your characters tick at the core. Ask yourself:
How are my characters desperate?
Character desperation is a double-edged sword. That is, your characters (like most human beings) are terrified of change. They’d rather live their lives of quiet desperation than make a change. No matter how unfulfilled, most people would rather live the illusion of “happiness” than pursue their dreams. No matter how miserable, most people are desperate to keep things As They Are. On the other hand, your characters are also desperate to rid themselves of their guilt, wounds, clutter, rigidity, fears. Both diametrically opposed forms of desperation (both positive and negative goals) must (and will) come to the forefront in the course of your screenplay. This will generate inner turmoil that will provide your characters with more than just one level of conflict in any given scene. +/- charges is how energy works. It’s also how drama works. The most important question to ask yourself about your story is: Where is the heat?
How are my characters ingenious risk takers?
Desperation will (hopefully) lead your characters to find an active way out of a crisis. It requires them to become proactive—which is good. Better yet, be sure to limit their choices. These limited choices stem only partially from the external circumstances; an equally important component to your characters’ limited choices is mandated by who they are. As in life, there are often an infinite number of choices that can be made at any given time—but it’s who we are that dictates which of those choices are available to us. Character backstory has everything to do with who, what, when, where, and why your characters do everything plot-wise. If you can’t credibly justify how to get your character to, say, plot point two—don’t force it! Ask yourself how your unique, specific character’s ingenuity might organically unfold to lead him to your plot point. Don’t lead your characters around by the plot. Rather, have your plot unfold in a way that’s tailor made to your characters. When you know your characters inside and out, you probably won’t be so confounded by all the choices you have to make as a writer. You’ll know where you want to take them, but due to their uniqueness, you’ll only be able to get them there in a way that’s unique and specific to them.
How do my characters find release?
In Depth of Character terms, “release” is about healing, which occurs via the release of the “old self” (that was desperately afraid to change) and the emergence of the New Self. When this New Self emerges, your characters have learned to accept the external circumstances of their lives because they’ve learned to accept themselves. This is the escape from all the clutter and uncertainty of the illusion that had given rise to the old, desperate self. Incidentally, this so-called “New Self” was there all along, but hidden under a self-imposed cloud of illusion and clutter and blinded by fear. The New Self that emerges is by no means perfect or fearless, but is definitely stronger and (finally) able to see the world more clearly—for better or worse. Often this will give rise to a whole new perspective on life, or, perhaps, simply a new appreciation of the old perspective.
- How are my characters desperate?
- Take the Time to Let the Details Accumulate
Find ways to crystallize behavior so it’s succinct, visual, and specific. The best exposition a) doesn’t read like exposition, b) is economical, and c) is mostly subliminal. The better you know your characters, the less pages it will take you to convey them to your reader. It’s in the small details. Expressing these details on the page isn’t about quantity; it’s about choosing which details to show that will most efficiently get your readers under a character’s skin. Once your readers understand what makes your characters tick on a deep, existential level, they may just follow them anywhere. They’ll be hooked.