Tag Archives: screenplays

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The Writer’s Goal of Peeling the Onion©

With our belief in the process of “taking the mystery out of the mystique” of film making and story telling, it is the hope of JCAD that anyone who has the passion to tell stories will do so in an educated and thoughtful, but highly passionate manner!  Whether a person tells his/her story through a screenplay, stage play, novel, or documentary, storytelling is an art that is one part pure imagination; a dash of risk and daring to be different; several cups of technical prowess and bending to a paradigm that goes back to Aristotle; many teaspoonfuls of psychological introspection and a pinch of willingness to hold a mirror to the writer’s soul.  Truth-telling from the heart comes out loud and clear as the writer’s voice that can be heard and felt in the hearts and minds of the movie audience or novel reader.

The Hollywood film industry churns out many films a year, oftentimes films that are “forgettable.”  It is not easy to design a story that will translate to the screen and end up being a “Blockbuster.”  In addition, not all “Blockbusters” are liked or admired by a segment of the population, who would prefer independently produced films that are on a much smaller budget, speak to a particular niche of an audience, and have a defined message to impart.  No matter what the outcome of the writer’s art or craft, whether it is a Blockbuster or Indie screenplay, stage play, novel, or documentary, the point is that with the insight into one’s soul, one can reach heights that never seemed possible.  Even if the story never makes millions of dollars, the internal satisfaction of writing a great story is an amazingly cathartic experience.

You can succeed in taking the mystery out of the mystique of storytelling and film production and then tell your own unique story, one page at a time.  The “High Concept” idea is important to remember though.  For example, you may think you’ve got a novel to write, as the result of a bitter divorce, but this might better lend itself to journal writing.  A divorce, per se, is not a story.  It certainly has story elements, but it is not a story that anyone would want to read about or go see a film about.

Although weddings are fraught with multiple stories and angst and worry that it’s all going to “go off” like a calibrated marching band, a wedding is not a story.  A death is not a story.  A Bar Mitzvah is not a story.  A pregnancy is not a story, even if there were complications and the baby died at birth.  Missing the train, which ended up getting derailed and killing a hundred people is not a story.  Missing a bus, which ended up getting blown up in a terror attack is not a story.  Missing one of the planes that ended up being highjacked by Islamic terrorists who directed the planes into skyscrapers and murdered thousands of innocent people is not a story.  ISIS beheading hundreds of human beings is not a story.  A little girl getting hit by a car and surviving is not a story.

What is missing from the above examples is a High Concept, a raison d’etre, or a spine or a theme or a moral or conflict or a protagonist or an antagonist or a reason as to why an audience or a reader should see this film or read this book. There are certainly compelling, horrific elements to some of the examples given in the above paragraph, but they are components of a newspaper article, or a journal entry, or an op-ed piece.  The idea of making “a wedding” into a story can germinate into a story if the elements of a story are incorporated with compelling characters and conflict and a crisis moment or resolution which is what the audience or reader is waiting to find out about.

At JCAD, it is therefore our goal to teach the writer how to peel the layers of the onion and get at the truth in storytelling.  In other words, we want the writer to get to the core of issues and not just develop a “catchy” plot line with an interesting twist that could be defined as “original.”  To scratch the surface is not enough for great storytelling.  We therefore get down to value systems and goals, both internal and external.  This leads to the creation of compelling characters who are living in 3-D format and who have flaws, most of which are usually not discernable to the characters themselves.  Through the storytelling, the flaws will actually come into play when the protagonist seeks to reach his/her goal.  And the result will be rewarding for both the main character and the audience.

So peeling the onion can be a rewarding experience for the writer and for the audience.  Maybe with tears?  Maybe with a greater understanding of the human condition?  Maybe with a feeling that all is well with the world?  Or all is horrific, but somehow we survive?  Or saving others with no regard for our own safety is a pretty decent goal, one which just might inspire us to do better with our lives after we get home and realize that home is not really a movie, but just plain old home.

The Character Bio Can Be Tricky©

When doing a character bio the trickiest thing to do is to create an area of misunderstanding or misguided belief in your protagonist, (the one who changes the most) and in your antagonists (the characters who obstruct, impede, challenge, love, hate, annoy and generally impact the protagonist.) It means you have to know the difference between what they actually need, and what they believe they need. They need to believe that if only they had this, or were that, or could get the other, or weren’t this that or the other, then their worlds would be hunky dory and they wouldn’t have any problems. This barking up the wrong tree is the basis of all desire in your characters, and desire is the motive energy behind all action.

This is where the next question comes in:

What does the protagonist think will happen if he/she doesn’t get what they want?

In books (and to a much greater extent in movies) your protagonist needs to want something really badly. They want it more than we do. In our lives we make compromises. We usually follow the path of least resistance because we can’t endure the conflict. We generally want easy lives.  In stories, characters want stuff so badly that they actually go about getting it, doing whatever it takes to get it, in ways we probably wouldn’t. If a protagonist doesn’t want something badly enough, he or she won’t do anything about trying to get it, and then there won’t be any story.

A “play” with the words “want” and “need” and “think you need”:

But when your character reaches the climax of the story, will he actually get what he thought he needed?  Maybe so.  But maybe not.  Here’s where the epiphany comes in.  It’s the realization that at the final moment the character has been fighting for, working toward, racing forward, jumping over highways and byways to get to…Maybe it was what he wanted, but maybe there’s something that he needed but he didn’t realize that he needed it, but now that he has achieved the end goal, he just may get what he needs, as opposed to what he thought he needed!!

So when you are creating your character, he/she must have a history that is not perfect by any means.  There are triumphs and there are flaws; highs and lows; good days and bad.  You need to describe these in as much detail as you can.  Make pages of this information.  Have fun.  What did your character have for breakfast when he/she was little? Where did he/she live? Describe the house/apartment/street.  Maybe your character lived in a shelter.  Describe.  Did your character go to school? If not, what did he/she do during childhood?  Maybe like Charles Dickens’ Oliver, he stole for a living and lived under the thumb of a ruthless Fagan character.  Maybe your character was an orphan.  Maybe from a family of ten.  Were they religious?  Did they go to a house of worship with their family?  Or did the parents send the kids and stay home?  Or did the parents go and leave the kids home? Was your character rich, poor, or somewhere in-between?

  • Describe the neighborhood, town, country where your character grew up.

  • Describe physical and emotional characteristics, including age.

** Note:  All characters in your story should have a bio.  The main character (protagonist) and the antagonist and the point of view character will get the widest amount of attention.  Round them out and make them as real as possible.  Try to employ empathy when creating them.  Get into their skin!!  If they did something that was unusual that was not something you would have done, it is important to go with this.  This character is not you.  This character has a life of his/her own.

** Come up with some very high and some very low points of each character’s “back story.” Sometimes, people say that “a certain high point” or “low point” defined them for the rest of their life.  Whether or not this ends up being true, the character may think or believe this!

Character Development – The End Goal vs. The Desire for the End Goal©

After you have decided on the genre of your story, or concurrent with deciding on the genre, you must decide on who your protagonist/hero will be.  Whether it’s a male or female protagonist, you need to decide on what your character’s goal/outer motivation in the story is.  Without the goal, the audience is left “hanging,” confused, irritated, and wondering why they paid their $15 to see this movie in the first place.  And remember, the protagonist’s goal is not your goal.  You need to step back and let your character do the talking and the walking.

You must decide what you want to do with this character you want to create—Someone who is waiting to jump off the page into a reader’s consciousness or jump onto the screen so the audience can view his/her story.  It’s time to give the protagonist a goal and an outer motivation.  And he/she must want this goal VERY BADLY.  Maybe you don’t want this goal because you’d rather sit home and avoid confrontation, BUT THE PROTAGONIST WANTS THIS GOAL AND JUST MIGHT BE READY TO DIE FOR IT.

Goal and Outer Motivation

When the protagonist (hero) is motivated to reach his/her “end goal,” this is the physical or tangible goal: To find the killer; to find a way out of prison; to survive a hurricane at sea; to survive a sinking ship and save as many people as possible; to find one’s identity that has been lost due to amnesia; to save as many people as possible from tyranny or genocide; to find the way home; to get the right to see one’s children when the wife has custody; to give a speech that will bolster a nation on the brink of war and destruction.

Desire to Reach the Goal

It is the protagonist’s desire to reach the goal that will drive the story.

The goal of the protagonist defines the story and carries us all the way to the end.  The desire to reach that goal will drive the story.  The outer motivation is the “finish line.” Ie. The hero wins a medal.  This is visible, tangible.  It would not be: “To achieve success.”  In The Fugitive, the goal for Dr. Kimble is to find the one-armed man.  In Titanic, the goal for Jack is Rose’s safety, for which he is willing to die.  In The Bourne Identity, the amnesic hero Jason wants to find his identity.  In Schindler’s List, Oscar Schindler wants to save Jews from the Nazis by keeping his company going under false and dangerous pretenses.  In Gravity, Sandra Bullock wants to survive a mission gone awry and get back to earth without getting killed.  In Mrs. Doubtfire, the hero wants to get the right to see his kids.  In The Imitation Game, the hero wants to break Enigma, the Nazi Code. In Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins wants to escape from prison and avenge the crimes and punishment of the evil warden.  In The Firm, Tom Cruise wants to save his life and the life of his wife and disentangle himself from the mafia firm where nobody ever quits. In The King’s Speech, George has to give a speech and overcome his life-long stuttering, and lead his country into WWII, after his brother abdicates the throne.

 

The Worm Who Could Cut Stone © Or The Importance of Doing Your H.W.!!

When writing a novel, screenplay, stage play, or documentary, the importance of research is paramount.  In order for your story to have credence, depth, originality, believability, you must do your homework!!

It is one thing to come up with a salable high concept that is clever, unique, never-before produced. HOWEVER, your audience is not stupid.  They hate to be swindled.  No matter where your setting is, you need to do your H.W. and get down the “where, when, why, and how” part of your story.  Even the “who” part will become more clear as you do your research.

Let’s say, you’ve got an idea of a modern-day character, an archaeologist, who lives in Jerusalem, but who is giving a lecture in Switzerland.  Your genre is action adventure.  Your character has discovered a stone that is 5,000 years old, but was not affixed to other stones with metal of any kind, yet was laid in a perfect line, with cement, and the walls of a particular structure are thirty feet high.

Here’s some history that is the result of just a tiny bit of research:

In 832 BCE, King David wanted to build the Temple, but because he was Israel’s great warrior and had shed much blood, he could not be the one to build the Temple in Jerusalem.  His son, Solomon (Shlomo), was chosen through one of the prophets to build the Temple.  As part of the process, God told Solomon to not cut the stones with metal utensils or tools because metal symbolizes the sword. Therefore, Solomon had to figure out a way to cut the stones for the construction of the Temple.  In a dream, he saw a unique worm that had the ability to cut away at stone.  Subsequently, God revealed to him this miraculous worm that was able to cut the stones for the Temple.

The worm was called the Ashmodi, in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate of Shabbat.

Now, maybe you don’t “buy” the information that came to Solomon in a dream—But your characters do!  They believe in prophets and dreams and in the ancient men of the period who talked to God.  Why?  Well, you have to give these believers a history that would tie them to such a belief.  Maybe they saw this worm at work.  Maybe there was testimony in texts.

 In any case, a bit more of research about Jerusalem will give you a sense of where your archaeologist character comes from, which in turn, will make your story more believable:

Your character’s home is Jerusalem.

Jerusalem stands on the crest of the Judean hills at an elevation of 2,577 feet above sea-level, 13 miles west of the Dead Sea, 32 miles east of the Mediterranean Sea, and roughly 80 miles south of the Sea of Galilee.  Founded more than 5,000 years ago, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the Jewish people.

 Recommended reading: Traveling With the Bible, by Galia Doron.  Take book in hand and envision a walk through time over stone steps.  Remember that the steps can tell the stories of both ancient and modern mankind in Israel, the Holy Land, and the world.  In the book, suggested hikes with level of difficulty are given for each historical/biblical site.  Quotations from the Bible and references are included for each site you will visit.  Whether you come to Israel or just read about the history, the information will help you with your story lines.

What is Genre?

What is Genre:

A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.

 

GENRE: HISTORICAL EPIC©

 Is Exodus a historical epic?  Is Exodus a drama/war film? Is it a historical tragedy?

Why is it so important for a story writer/screenwriter to get the genre correct from the get-go?  First of all, to stay within the parameters of genre is to deliver to audiences what they have come to pay for their admission ticket.  Also, characters are believable and credible.  A story line that contains a spine and ultimately, a theme causes the audience/reader to sit at the edge of their seat/turn the page until the climax or epiphany is reached by the main character/hero.

It is easy for a screenwriter to grapple with genre throughout the writing process.  Because there are certain elements that can or cannot be included in a specific genre, it is easy to get confused along the way.  A particular story line lends itself to a certain genre.  Yes, there are “cross-over” genres, but only experienced writers should attempt them.  It is hard enough to write the great story with one genre in mind.

The historical epic is a genre that can include a biographical epic, such as Schindler’s List or Gandhi, or a dramatic epic, such as Gone With the Wind or Gladiator.  In the biographical epic, the hero is a real character, as opposed to a fictional character. In the dramatic epic, such as Gone with the Wind, the hero is fictional.  The story is based on real events, but the characters are fictional.

In some movie reviews, Exodus is listed as a drama/war genre.  Drama is a genre, but not necessarily based on real historical events, such as the history of the State of Israel and all the events both before and after the creation of the State of Israel. War is not a genre.  Within a drama, there can be war, certainly.  And within a historical or dramatic epic there can be war.

To see Exodus as coming under the genre of drama is not accurate.  Put simply, drama is where the hero/protagonist confronts complex human emotions, which are tested throughout the story.  Drama can be a love story, such as Love Story or Wuthering Heights.  Drama can be called a thematic drama, such as The Shawshank Redemption or Seabiscuit.  Drama can be a psychological drama, such as Good Will Hunting.  A drama with tragic overtones could be The Godfather.

To call Exodus an historical tragedy is not the correct genre either.  A tragedy in the Greek sense is a cathartic characterization of characters who have flaws that overwhelm them.  One associates tragedy with Shakespearean classics such as Macbeth.  If tragic events occur to the main characters, then certainly the story that is being portrayed is a tragedy, such as Schindler’s List.  But the genre is not tragedy.

Let’s examine the two films that are basically on the same topic, the Israel War for Independence:  Exodus, produced in 1960 and Kedma, produced in 2002.

Now, a look at just a few Exodus film critics’ reviews.

Genre: Historical epic

“Exodus” 1960, Otto Preminger

Based on Leon Uris’ novel, this historical epic provides a dramatic backstory to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, in the aftermath of World War II. Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman), a passionate member of the Jewish paramilitary group Haganah, attempts to transport 600 Jewish refugees on a dangerous voyage from Cyprus to Palestine on a ship named the Exodus. He faces obstruction from British forces, who will not grant the ship passage to its destination.

Another synopsis:

Fictional but fact-based account of the struggle for the emergence of modern Israel as an independent country and home for world Jewry.

MOVIE REVIEW (partial)

Exodus (1960)

3 1/2-Hour Film Based on Uris’ Novel Opens

By BOSLEY CROWTHER

Published: December 16, 1960

THE gingerly awaited film version of Leon Uris’ novel, “Exodus,” which its producer-director, Otto Preminger, unveiled at the Warner Theatre last night, turns out to be a massive, overlong, episodic, involved and generally inconclusive “cinemarama” of historical and fictional events connected with the liberation of the State of Israel in 1947-1948.

Another film on the same topic as Exodus is listed as Drama/War:

Genre: Drama/War, 2002 Israeli film

“Kedma” Amos Gitai, Director/Writer

One synopsis:

In May 1948, shortly before the creation of the State of Israel, hundreds of immigrants from across Europe arrive in Palestine–only to risk arrest by British troops.

Another synopsis of Kedma from Wikipedia:

The film is a historical tragedy set during the opening stages of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The film follows the fate of a group of refugees from the Holocaust who are illegally brought to Israel by the Palmach. When they arrive, they are chased by British soldiers. Once they escape, they are immediately drafted into the war, and take part in a grueling battle against Arab irregulars. The film centers on two long monologues, one by an Arab peasant who pledges to oppose the Jews forever; and one by an emotionally demolished refugee who laments the seemingly endless suffering of his people. Gitai intended the film to be a more realistic answer to the romanticized depiction of the war in Otto Preminger’s Exodus. The final shot of Kedma is identical to the final shot of Preminger’s film.

In summary, the genre for Exodus and for Kedma is historical epic.  One of the problems with Kedma is that the director’s ego got in the way of producing a story with believable and credible characters, where the audience forms an opinion based on the story line.  The film or story should stand on its own and not be an “answer” to someone else’s film or vision.  If the story is a tragedy, then the audience will form that conclusion when the elements of the story follow the parameters.  An audience feels manipulated or confused when the spine of a story meanders in order to follow the writer’s preconceived notions of what “truth” should be.  The characters in the story are compelling to an audience as they go on their journey, as opposed to a writer’s pre-formulated goal for them.

TEST TIME: WHAT IS THE GENRE FOR TITANIC??? DON’T LOOK IT UP.  WHAT DO YOU THINK AND WHY???

GENRE FOR TITANIC:

Titanic was indeed a ship that sank in 1912, but the characters of Jack and Rose were fictional and their love story was the catalyst that moved the action of the story forward and caused the audience to feel an enduring epiphany along with the characters.  The genre for Titanic is OVERALL, historical epic, but SPECIFICALLY, a romantic/dramatic epic.  JAMES CAMERON COULD USE CROSS-GENRES LIKE A CHAMP.  THE FILM IS AN ALL-TIME GREAT!!

 

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