Sunday, July 25, 2010

Barry's Numbers, and The Mystique of Movie Characters

A Personal Rant
Do you ever get that helpless feeling about events like the Gulf oil spill? For me the Gulf debacle stirs up stormy emotions including fear and hatred. Not helpful.

So the personal feature today is -- Barry's Numbers.

Number of dollars the Gulf oil spill will likely cost -- 33 billion.

Number of big windmills we could build for that much money -- 73,370.

Number of megawatts those windmills would produce -- enough to supply 10% of the power needed by the whole United States, every year, according to  the Alpine Power Company of Oregon.

The Mystique of Movie Characters
Last post I pointed out the prevalence of 3 major characters in Hollywood movies:  the Hero, the Bonding Character, and the Villain.

In my study of movies, I discovered that these three characters each have a certain collection of attributes.  If we were talking about stage plays, we might say that each character is an archetype.

Over the course of the 100-odd years movies have been in existence, movie characters evolved, and the nature of the three main characters has become more defined.  So, like Darwin's description of evolution, the "fittest" story patterns have survived and we find those patterns repeated in wondrous varieties.

The writer who understands these patterns is more likely to write a successful screenplay.  Let's take a basic example.  In the movies, as in real life, characters have their likenesses and differences. Those disparities appear in the same form in almost every movie.

Question:  which character would be most unlike the Hero, the Villain or the Bonding Character?

Answer:  See if you can deduce it from this description of the movie Witness.

Harrison Ford plays the Hero, a workaholic homicide detective.  Kelly McGillis plays the Bonding Character, an Amish mother, whose husband has just died.  Richard Jenkins plays the Villain, a police captain on the take.

Harrison Ford (the Hero) With Kelly McGillis (the Bonding Character)

[Next blog:  Differences and Likenesses in Movie Characters]

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Right Connections

Last bog, I was talking about building a story around three characters.  If successful screenplays have this principle in common, why aren’t they simple to write?  Why can’t a writer just dream up three characters and create a lot of events that involve them?
The answer is that, if a writer studies the structure of screenplays, he or she will eventually discover that in order to make a screen story work, it’s necessary for the writer to “connect” the three major characters in a way that will produce the best dramatic impact on a movie audience.

Obviously before that happens the writer has to have some inkling of who the three characters are, and what their role will be in the story.

In my own study of screenplays, I was highly interested in which three characters had the greatest amount of screen time.  What did I discover?  Well, nothing earth-shaking, but I found that the allocation of pages to characters was extremely consistent across all the genres except two (which I’ll deal with in a later blog).Inevitably, the greatest amount of screen pages (and therefore screen time) was allocated to the main character, whether you prefer to call that character a Hero, a Protagonist, or something else.  I like “Hero” for its brevity and familiarity.

The runner-up in pages (surprisingly to me at the time) was not the “Villain,” but a character that is dominant in movies.  I dubbed this character “the Bonding Character,” mainly because he or she typically develops a strong bond with the Hero.  Other writers have named it the “Impact Character,” not a bad monicker, since this second-most-important character has a great impact, both on the story and on the Hero.

Matt Damon (the Hero) and Franke Potente (the Bonding Character) “bond” in The Bourne Identity.

In third place is the Villain, even though the evil characteristics and threat of the Villain often makes him or her seem to be more important than the Bonding Character.

[Next blog]  The Mystique of Characters

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Magic of Three

Okay, for the personal touch, this is my cat Willow, wearing her white bib at the cottage.

How many of you remember reading a story by Ray Bradbury named A Sound of Thunder?

It’s the classic sci-fi story about a time-traveler who visits a site in the ancient past, steps on a butterfly, and returns to find his own world utterly, irretrievably changed.

I can still remember the frisson that story gave me—the excitement of the idea that the fate of all things in the world rested somehow on the nature of their connection to each other.

In the early years of my writing career, I struggled to  make successful connections among the many elements of my stories. 

Why was I struggling?  Because I was thinking about story and characters in a literary way, a “straight line” way—the way print goes across a page, one element after another.  HERO— INCITING INCIDENT— GOAL— RISING ACTION— etc., etc.

Even worse, I just assumed that drama consisted mainly of “conflict” between two entities: Protagonist and Antagonist, Hero and Villain.  After much frustration with scripts that didn’t really work, I started to analyze movies and how they worked dramatically. 

What was it about the nature of movie stories that made them appeal so strongly to the audience?
I read a lot of scripts, I dissected a lot of plots, but the answer came from my study of movie posters – the ubiquitous “one-sheets.”

Again and again, posters for movies typically feature two major characters.  And neither of them is the Villain.

In fact – the typical movie story centers on a personal relationship between two characters, one of whom is the Hero.  I didn’t know what to call the other one except that I knew it was the “second most important character.”

I decided to name this character the BONDING CHARACTER.  And then, after closer examination, I learned four things about the audience’s response to the Bonding Character that truly surprised me:
The audience invests its positive emotion in the relationship between the Bonding Character and the Hero.

During the movie, the audience tracks this relationship and yearns for the Hero to “get together” with the Bonding Character in some way.

The audience realizes that the Bonding Character is very unlike the Hero, but it expects the Hero to use the Bonding Character’s qualities to help defeat the villain (think of Rachel Lapp’s pacifism in Witness, and how the Hero, John Book, uses it to defeat Schaefer, the crooked cop).

The audience expects the Bonding Character (not the villain) to have the second largest amount of screen time.

Perhaps my “trick” of creating a triangle of characters was some kind of intuitive recognition that movies need a complement of three major characters in order to work.  So, the magic of three – Hero, Bonding Character, and Villain.

I thought of Bradbury’s butterfly.  Such a tiny creature, but its connection to every other living thing was so significant that changing its death changed the whole development of the planet.

Maybe the connection of these three main characters to each other in a screenplay might be just as significant to a movie as the connection of the butterfly was to the future of the world

[Next blog]  The Right Connections

Monday, June 21, 2010

Is a Story a Triangle?

I’ve been told I need to give my blog a personal touch so my blog followers will get to feel they know me. Okay, let’s get that out of the way. I have a cat named Willow. I’ve taught her to run alongside me up two flights of stairs by giving her a snack treat when she gets to the top. This is not a fat cat, friends.

At this blog, however, there's a theme -- I hope it’ll be mostly about creating stories, if not All About the Story.

Early in my writing career, I found myself sitting across the desk from a network executive. This was when it was still acceptable to smoke. So, I’m listening, he’s filling his pipe with Flying Dutchman, and telling me how much he likes the script my writing partner and I had turned in the week before.

“I love the milieu,” he says, “All that rodeo action with the dusty arena, and the Brahma bulls. Dialogue’s great. Might have to clean it up a bit. I love the characters...thinking of Blair Brown for the female lead …but…”

Uh-oh, I thought.

“Somehow the story isn’t quite there. I’m not sure what it is exactly. We’ll have to work on it.”

I confess to you that it would be a long time before I learned how to create a really successful screen story.

Along the way, I became a one-trick pony for a while. I discovered that if I created a triangle of three characters to start with, the script usually turned out okay.

And I clung to that trick like a shipwrecked sailor on a scrap of decking. But all along, I had the guilty feeling that I was faking it. So, finally, I committed myself to discovering secret of creating a really successful story

I started by throwing away everything I’d been taught in school and university. I pretended I’d never heard of anything like inciting incident, rising action, climax, denouement, three-act structure, turning point, catharsis, hero’s journey, etc. etc. All of it -- into the dumpster.

So I thought, if I’m successful when I build my story around three central characters, the key to a successful screen story might be, not in the way the events are created and structured, but in the relationships of the characters. I decided to analyze movies, dig into how the three main characters interacted with each other.

[Next Blog] The Magic of Three

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Stop the Insanity

Somewhere out there in the ether is an insane notion that afflicts a great percentage of beginning writers, developing writers, and wannabe writers.

I want to do everything I can to stop the insanity.

Let me explain.

As a working screenwriter, author, coach, and producer, I often get approached by people, most of them sincere, who have ideas. Nothing wrong with that -- you can’t be a writer without them.

But consider the mail I get from people who have ideas. Much of it is of this type:

I’ve got an idea for a really good movie, but I don’t know who to give my idea to. Can you please help me?

This correspondent’s question exemplifies the insanity I’m talking about. How could an idea that exists only in someone’s head be of any value?

The other type of mail I get is from people deluded into thinking that creativity is a process in which an idea forms completely in the mind, and only needs to be copied onto some medium or another to be finished – like the writer below.

Over the past months I have been thinking of a great story in my head, but, like all of my other screenplays, they never get completed. Not because of lack of story or structure, but because I become less interested and less motivated in writing them as time goes on.

Here’s my response: “Thinking of a story only in your head is the crux of the problem you're having. Swimming is not done on the shore, and writing is not done in the head. It's done on the computer screen, or on paper with a pen or pencil.

“It's a delusion to think that an idea in the head has story or structure. Story and structure is too large and complex to be formed and retained in the head, it has to be constructed by writing it down and working with it onscreen or in your notebook or journal. The story and structure will only evolve if the ideas you have in your mind interact with your effort to give those ideas life in some way.”

E. M. Forster, the accomplished British writer summed it up succinctly. “How can I know what I think till I see what I say,” he said.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Good Intentions

Before I went to school, I lived with my grandparents for long periods of time. My grandmother had a mental library of well-worn gems of folk wisdom that she brought with her from Dublin, Ireland. One of these I particularly remember was, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

I must be on the way to somewhere very toasty, because when this blog was launched in 2008, I thought it would be easy to key in a bon mot here, a morsel of tasty gossip there, and finish every post off with a dazzling poetic flourish.

Here I am, more than two years down the road with nothing blogged, and my good intentions shriveled to a small mound at my feet.

I think that the prospect of being obligated to face a blog page every day (Ah, thos
e good intentions were ambitious!) cooled my urge to join the mainstream of my family and colleagues who dutifully post, and post, and post.

But now I've been inspired by a producer who really knows how to blog to the extreme. If blogging were a sport, she'd be the Clisters or Navratilova of blogging. She and I are working on a documentary about the origins of computer programming language and its history. It happens that she is the daughter of one of the computer wizards who invented a seminal language acronymed as APL (Array Progamming Language), and so has access to myriads of contacts and research material that needs to be networked and grown. You can follow her blog here

So, roused by her example, I have new resolve, no more intentions, just action. We'll see how it all works out.


Monday, March 10, 2008

The Beginning of the Journey

For about ten years now, I’ve managed a website that I created to help professional and developing writers (mainly screenplay and television writers). Over that time I’ve also written a number of books, and other resources that I marketed via the website.

But times change, and I’m moving to blogging as a better way to communicate. I’ll keep my website, but I’m looking at this blog as my way to connect with writers in a more personal and accessible web environment.

The main motivation for me to make a change is that I’ve come to the end of a seven-year journey on an epic miniseries/feature project called Iron Road, which I developed, wrote, packaged, and produced in partnership with a wonderful group of film and television professionals, whom you can read about at the Iron Road website.

The experience was challenging, exhilarating, stressful, and fulfilling all at once. But the demands on my time caused my personal website, Create Your Screenplay, to fall far, far behind in upkeep and maintenance. The best solution now is to start fresh.

Since this is the beginning of my blogging career, I’ll end this post by sharing some pictures of the beginning of the shoot of Iron Road in the spring of 2007 in Hengdian Studio City, south of Shanghai. In China, before the first day of principal photography, the custom is to have a ceremony to bring good fortune upon the production. These are some pictures of that event below: