Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Site Alert - Writers Store: The 11 Laws of Great Storytelling

An email with a link to the following article just popped into my Gmail account (now that Gmail is back up and running, that is): The 11 Laws of Great Storytelling by Jeffrey Hirschberg.

Most of these are pretty rudimentary, but they're good to have all down together. Obviously, there are other things that all writers should be aware of, also. But for the purposes of this blog - i.e. aiding aspiring writers -it's a worthwhile read. Hirschberg takes readers through the following 11 key reminders/pointers (with my summary and thoughts in italics):

1. Assume everyone has ADD
Hardly anyone is going to devote their precious time to reading a script that doesn't instantly captivate them. Their phones will ring; they'll get emails; they'll be at home trying to get their kids to bed. Hook them, and keep them hooked, or their eyes will wander from your script to something more interesting, and you can consider that opportunity blown.

2. Spend most of your time on the first ten pages of your script
Most readers and acquisitions people will tell you that you get 10 pages to reel them in. Within that ten, not only do readers learn who the protagonist is, the world the script takes place in, and what happens that launches the protagonist's upcoming journey, but they get a good sense of a writer's ability. If a writer doesn't wow the reader in those first ten pages, then the remaining 110 pages look like a chore, and the opportunity is often blown.

3. Write roles to attract movie stars
This one is good to keep in mind if you want to write major Hollywood blockbusters. Most male action stars don't want to look especially weak or vulnerable or afraid on screen, so trying to get Tom Cruise to play a guy who is afraid of butterflies - unless it's a comedy - is not likely to happen. Personally, I wouldn't rank this #3 out of 11. Yes, you'll want a star to get your $80 million budget financed, but don't sacrifice what you want to do for that. Especially if you're not looking to break the bank. A number of League members have written great scripts with no celebrity in mind.

4. Write economically
You only get so many pages. Don't clutter them with unnecessary description and excessive dialogue. That doesn't mean skimp on either. My rule of thumb is that I try to keep most blocks of action/description to three lines (Hirschberg says five). This keeps action moving. Short but sharp descriptions urge the reader forward, keep their eyes on your script, and make it a page turner. All good.

5. Make sure every character has a unique voice
If everyone sounds the same, your reader will get lost. In a strong script, a reader will breeze over slugg lines and character names marking dialogue, because both will be obvious from the description of the scene's setting and the character's voice.

6. Understand your audience
Hirschberg means both the reader/agent/producer/manager you're submitting to and the target audience for the intended film. When agents send scripts to production companies, they know who they're targeting. They won't send your comedy to the guy who mostly does horror, and they certainly won't send your bloody horror spec to the family films people. Likewise, your horror film better be scary to the high schoolers its intended for. Want to blow another opportunity: send a horror spec that might scare a three year old - if that - to the people who acquire family films.

7. Know your three-act structure
The reader/manager/agent/producer knows it, and they'll be looking for it, especially if they don't know you. New and unproduced writers have got to show they know the basics. While there are always exceptions to any rule, it's not really a great idea for new writers to try to scrap three-act structure for something more experimental. If you can do it and do it well, though, then my hat's off to you.

8. Be aware of theme, and keep it consistent throughout the script
Ever seen a comedy that turns really dark and almost scary half way through? Were you surprised and disappointed when that happened? Readers have the same reaction to scripts that do the same thing. That doesn't mean a comedy can't get dark, but remember that it's still a comedy. Even in the darker parts.

9. Watch and re-watch successful movies similar to your story
You're writing a movie about gladiators. Watch Gladiator and take notes. Why was Gladiator so good? Why did it get made? And what can you do in your script to make sure it's not a Gladiator rip-off. Same token: you're writing a revenge script; watch Gladiator of Man on Fire and outline them. Where does the betrayal come in? How does it unfold form there? When does the final showdown come into play?

10. Know what your hero wants (the goal), what happens if he doesn’t get what he wants (the stakes), and who/what is preventing him from getting what he wants (the villain)
Screenwriting 101. Set the stakes high. If your hero is a low-income high school football player who needs to get an A on his math test, make sure we care that he gets it. If failure to get the A means he doesn't get into the college that's giving him a full ride, that's a big deal. If not getting the A means that his parents are mad and he'll go to a different school, we care less.

11. Leave them wanting more
Hirschberg doesn't mean set up a sequel (though most producers/managers I've spoken to about my action specs look for sequel potential). What he means is that your reader should wish there were more pages, because they couldn't get enough of your story and your writing. They want to see more, and since there isn't more, they want to a) see this script become a move and b) see what else you have.

Visit the Writers Store to read the full article, which is actually an excerpt from Jeffrey Hirschberg’s recent book: “Reflections of the Shadow: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains for Film and TV.”

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