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Writing the Perfect Ending

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 2:51 pm on January 15, 2012

Yep, they can make it – and they can break it!  In one fell swoop you have to tie-up any loose ends and satisfy an audience’s expectation.  Not an easy task, right?  Absolutely not.  In fact, as a working screenwriter I have found writing a satisfying ending to be one of the hardest parts of the creative writing process.

Don’t get me wrong, I can write endings.  I can write all types of endings.  Endings with a final climactic showdown between the hero and villain.  Endings with a witty line that leaves the audience with a smile.  Endings with a sad yet uplifting tone.  I can write endings in my sleep.. but that doesn’t mean they are always going to be the best ending for the story.  Perfection is hard to attain.  We all try to create the perfect scene, the perfect witty banter, the perfect character arc and the perfect ending, but linking all of this together is complicated.  We have to fulfill expectations on so many levels and at the same time make it original and entertaining.

And things get even more difficult when you’re trying to please a producer, director and development executive because everybody has their own ideas of what needs to transpire in the closing moments of your movie.. which by that point is technically “their” movie or optimistically “our” movie.  The best advice is to keep it real and inevitable.  Don’t just tag on a twist you haven’t set up.  An ending needs to evolve naturally.  To be organic.

If you can create an a) original ending that b) entertains but more crucially c) resolves the central character’s journey, d) hints at the theme and e) either makes you laugh, cry or leaves you wanting more then you are onto a winner.  The feeling an audience needs to walk out of the movie theater with is one of “satisfaction”.  Sure, they may argue about who killed who, what that blue ornament on the mantelpiece represented, and why the director filmed it in Seattle rather than London, but ultimately they need to feel intellectually content with the resolution that was presented to them.

I hate movies that either give us a predictable ending (lazy screenwriting and filmmaking) or shove a truck load of exposition down our throats just to explain the plot.  If it’s that complicated then the writer has made some poor decisions somewhere down the line.  If you need to telegraph to the audience that the hero or heroine has changed, through dialogue or a clunky visual device, then that’s equally as irritating.

The best endings just “feel right” when you write them and watch them.  They may sometimes surprise you, not necessarily out of an intentional creative choice by the writer, but by the script itself which by the end of the story should have a life of its own.  Like putting that final piece of the puzzle into place and then stepping back to take it all in for the first time, an effective ending completes the picture.  And endings, like that final piece, should never need to be forced into position.. they should just slip into place as if they were always destined to be there.

Creating Effective Scene Transitions

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 2:48 pm on January 5, 2012

Sometimes as writers we get so caught up with developing the crucial elements of a screenplay such as character arcs, plot logic, theme, structure and snappy dialogue that we forget how important it is to write effective scene to scene transitions.  Of course, you don’t want this kind of thing to hinder your creative flow but at some point, perhaps the day after writing a scene, or during the first rewrite, I encourage you to pay attention to this stylistic aspect of your screenplay.

You have probably read books or articles in which many screenwriting professionals recommend that you do not include camera directions and musical choices in your script, and for the most part this is true, they should be left for the director, but I do think that sometimes it is acceptable to include these stylistic elements in your script because they help to set the scene, evoke an emotion and reveal your screenwriter’s voice.

Writing an effective scene to scene transition can help crank up the pace or even provide a subtle subtext through sound and visuals that enhance a piece of dramatic script writing.

An example would be these two scenarios:

a)    A husband and wife argue at home late at night.  The wife ends the row by slamming the bathroom door shut.  We then cut to the next day and a wide shot of a car factory, within which is the husband, hard at work on the production line.

This example tells the story but how about this alternative:

b)    Cut from the door slam to a close-up of a hammer hitting a piece of metal.  We then reveal the husband working in a car factory pounding a car door.

The second scenario tells the same story but adds impact through the use of transition and carries the undertone of frustration from the end of one scene through to the beginning of another, suggesting that the argument, while over, is not forgotten and is still playing on the husband’s mind.  Visually it is also more powerful.

Be innovative with your scene transitions. Dissolve from a ticking clock in one location to a broken clock in another.  Cut from a burglar getting away to a barking dog chasing a ball.  But remember, don’t get carried away and overuse these stylistic choices because if you try to be too clever with every transition they will start to stick out like a sore thumb and cumulatively have a negative affect on your screenplay. In short, pay attention to detail. This may just be the icing on the cake but is important none the less.

What is the Time Frame of Your Screenplay?

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 2:45 pm on December 26, 2011

When you first get the idea for a story it will probably focus around an interesting character, event, act three plot twist, high concept or thrilling action sequence, but one thing we do not normally consider at the start of the creative writing process is the time frame of the piece. Is your story set in a single day?  During the course of a week?  A month? Or even over several years?  The time frame you choose will have a significant impact on how you tell your story and the pacing of the narrative.

Clarifying the timeline of your story right from the start will save you a great deal of time and effort in rewrites further down the road when you ultimately discover that you have either tried to squeeze too much information into your script or conversely need more scenes to pad it out.  But even if we put the technicalities of the time frame aside, choosing a time frame to suit the genre or story can actually enhance the drama.

Think of a film like John Badham’s Nick of Time in which Johnny Depp has only ninety minutes to save his six-year-old daughter.  And then there’s the excellent TV series 24 which not only uses the time frame of a single day to heighten the tension and suspense but also as a stylistic device by presenting multiple events that are happening in various locations simultaneously through split-screen.

When you plan your script, consider what will be the best time frame for your story.  There’s nothing wrong with having a drama take place over many years.  This will of course slow the overall pacing of the piece but that may be appropriate to your story choice and help an audience identify with your characters as they develop.  However, would the same time frame work for an action movie?  It may, so long as you have given it some thought at the start, understand the possible obstacles your chosen time frame may introduce and create some innovative solutions to these hurdles.

Remember, there are no hard and fast rules and every story is different, principally because every screenwriter has their own voice.  This is what makes screenwriting so interesting.  Just be aware of how important time frame is to storytelling and how the wrong choice at the start could create a mountain of problems either for you as a writer or for an audience trying to engage with your tale.

Avoid Coincidence In Storytelling

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 2:41 pm on December 16, 2011

Constructing an original, entertaining and intelligent plot is hard work, but that should not mean you should settle for the easy option when writing a screenplay.  In fact, the opposite should apply.  If it’s difficult to come up with something original then push yourself as a screenwriter that much harder.  Force yourself to be innovative because if you do you will undoubtedly produce something much more engaging and satisfying for an audience in the process.

Many writers of fiction, especially crime fiction, use a MacGuffin in complicated plots to drive a story forward, and Alfred Hitchcock (who coined the term) was one of them.  The whole point of the MacGuffin is that it is irrelevant. As Hitchcock himself explained, the MacGuffin is: “the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after… The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatsoever.”

In the golden era of Hollywood, writers and directors were never always as concerned as their modern day counterparts to get all the facts straight.  So long as the women looked sexy, the men looked rugged and there were guns and chases the Hollywood Execs were happy.  To illustrate the point, you may have heard about the classic Howard Hawkes movie The Big Sleep with Bogart and Bacall, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.

In the story there was confusion surrounding the death of the Sternwood family chauffeur, a character named Owen Taylor. Apparently somebody sent a telegram to Raymond Chandler asking him “Who killed the chauffeur?”.  He replied “Damned if I know.”  It’s an amusing anecdote but I know that from my experience when developing a screenplay with producers and development executives that you must have an answer for everything and that nobody would be impressed with a reply like that.

So to avoid such professional faux pas and to make  sure the logic of your crime thriller is coherent I suggest you do your utmost as a writer to iron out all the creases in your plot BEFORE you present it to anyone.  And most importantly, do not rely on coincidence to be the solution.  If you hero just happens to find a gun under the bed during a frantic struggle with his nemesis then that’s poor penmanship.  If your heroine loses her job and then just happens to bump into someone who offers her another, that’s lazy.

As always, there are exceptions to the rule and sometimes a particular story or genre can get away with it so long as it’s an intentional screenwriting choice and clear to the audience as such.  But generally you should set up events so they do not seem coincidental.  If it strikes you as obvious then try to figure out another way around revealing a crucial piece of information or engineering a chance meeting without it being too contrived.  If that fails, you could always try to conceal your coincidence behind a powerful moment of action or drama and hope the audience don’t notice!

Change Is Good For Screenwriters

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 2:38 pm on December 6, 2011

Whether it’s a daily routine of meals, a weekly routine of phone calls, or going to your typical vacation destination, we are all creatures of habit, some more than others.  We create comfort zones in our everyday lives, sometimes for fear of change and other times simply because we no what we like and we want an easy life.

This is also true for screenwriting.  We may start out not knowing what kind of writers we are and what stories we want to tell and then discover our own voice, style and preferences along the way.  Or we may know right from the get-go that we love thrillers and only want to right for this genre.  Whichever camp you fall into habit can prove to be a good thing and a bad thing.  Just because you like one kind of genre, doesn’t mean you won’t be good at writing another.  Similarly, just because you THINK you’re good at writing one type of story, doesn’t mean you won’t be better at writing a different kind.

Script writing should be viewed as another form of exercise – so long as we overlook the fact that we’re normally slouched in a chair in front of the computer during most of the process. Sometimes it’s good to stretch your creative muscles, try new things and experiment.  But stay off the drugs!  Seriously though, writers become lazy, writing what they know and not pushing themselves to be innovative except within the constraints of their chosen genre.  Instead, you should constantly challenge yourself and throw yourself in at the deep end once in a while.

If you enjoy writing horrors, why not have a stab (pardon the pun) at writing a comedy?  Who knows, it may produce a great script.  Or, you may find out that you do have a good sensibility for humorous scenes but not enough for creating a full script in the genre.  If that is the case, at least you know your boundaries and you may even be able to apply some of the lessons learned to your regular script and write a comedy horror.

Try to imagine your story as a visual landscape and keep it interesting.  If you’re always writing similar stories and characters, expand your palette.  Add more color.  Mix up your ingredients and make full use of your cinematic canvas.  The process will at the very least teach you things about your approach to screenwriting and the experience will always help you no matter what kind of story you tell.  Sometimes the lessons we learn through life are never immediately apparent but ultimately influence us in one way or another – screenwriting is no different.

Whose Point of View Is It?

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 2:35 pm on November 26, 2011

Unless you are writing an ensemble movie like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts you will typically focus your story on a central character’s journey and the obstacles thrown in his or her way.  The mistake many first-time screenwriters make is getting side-tracked by supporting characters and their own evolving character arcs.

Now, I need to preface this advice with a caveat since I have previously discussed how helpful it can be to create fully-developed secondary characters and their own lives outside of the central storyline and Protagonist.  And by creating their “own lives” I don’t necessarily mean we need to see those lives but it’s important for the writer to know about them and to have explored them in order for your secondary characters’ dialogue and actions to ring true when they interact with the central character.  I still stand by this but advise you to tread carefully so you do not inadvertently turn the spotlight onto your supporting character so much so that they outshine the hero/heroine of the piece.

You must remember whose point of view the movie story is being told from.  Who are we as readers or an audience meant to identify with. If you have been following your main character for twenty straight scenes in a row and then cut to a secondary character – say, his best friend – then you need to be sure this diversion is justified within the context of the overarching story otherwise it will detract from your central plot and be redundant.  If in this example the best friend makes a phone call about the hero or discovers something about the main plot that puts him and the hero in danger then that’s fine, but if the scene simply shows the best friend going on a date with someone that has absolutely no connection with the hero or plot and never will then lose it.

The same issue can arise when a writer focuses too much attention on the villain of the story.  Yes, the Antagonist plays an important role and should never be considered as secondary since they balance the good with the bad, provide conflict, obstacles, fear, tension and keep everything ticking along toward a climax, but you can also go over the top with their scene stealing and story-hogging so as to pull focus from the hero or heroine.  If we as an audience are supposed to empathize with the plight of the hero then we must go on the journey with them and walk in their shoes.  That is crucial.  Anything that deviates us from that journey or dilutes the connection with the hero is a negative factor and must be cut or reworked.

Be Bold With Your Screenwriting

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 2:32 pm on November 16, 2011

Every screenwriter wants to create an original, entertaining and memorable movie but that goal is often hard to achieve.  There is no magic formula, no matter what anybody says.  Yes, there are structural paradigms, specific working practices, character development methods and even screenwriting software but a good screenplay normally hinges on one thing and one thing alone – the writer.

Only the writer with his or her unique voice and original ideas can turn a run-of-the-mill story into a roller-coaster read with the potential to become a Hollywood blockbuster.  As a screenwriter you need to fully invest yourself into your project heart and soul and push yourself at every plot and page turn.  If you simply want to make some money or “be famous” then forget it.  Don’t insult an audience with that kind of attitude, because if you don’t love what you’re writing, why should anybody else.

I’m not saying you can’t combine commerciality and a pay check with screenplay writing because you can, so long as you challenge yourself to remain as true as possible to your characters and theme along the way.  That means BE BOLD with your creative writing choices. Try to engage your reader from page one.  Throw them into the thick of your story as soon as possible and give them something compelling to chew over until the next big scene.  Always punctuate your story with unforgettable moments that keeps them wanting more.

If you need to write a talking heads scene in a diner, try to be innovative.  Hurl something at the audience they wouldn’t expect.  If it’s an action movie, make the audience think that this scene is going to be about plot exposition without action then surprise them with a set-piece from left-field.  If it’s a drama, create an out-of-the-blue confrontation between your Protagonist and an innocent bystander that shocks us and reveals an aspect of our hero or heroine we have not seen before.

You, as a screenwriter, are the God of your imaginary world. And as we all know “With great power comes great responsibility”.. so don’t waste it.  Ensure that your creative writing choices have integrity.  Keep your audience guessing.  Make every scene the best it can be and not just a page filler because you’ve run out of fresh ideas or are just getting lazy.  If you’ve received development notes from a friend, script consultant or development executive, don’t just write by numbers to please them.  Take all feedback on board as a challenge to you as a writer to become a better writer and write better scripts.  Be original.  Be passionate.  And most importantly, be bold.

Structure Vs Free-Form Script Writing

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 2:07 pm on November 6, 2011

Screenwriters, novice and pro, will inevitably have their own contrasting methodologies for writing a screenplay and you will often hear conflicting rules to adhere to from prominent screenwriting gurus on how to write a script.

So what is the best way to write your movie?

Should you plan every minute detail or simply unlock your mind to a cinematic stream of consciousness and go with the flow?

Well, I would suggest the answer is both!

When I first started out as a screenwriter I would get an idea for a story or sometimes simply the opening scene, a great ending or even a cool set-piece somewhere in the middle of act two and then jump into the script.  I wouldn’t even use a computer but instead write it all down with a pen on a lined pad.  In fact, I wrote my first ever script that way and it was optioned and while it never got produced it did prove to be a great writing sample and clinched my first spec sale and multiple assignments.

Since my first script I have written many without a coherent plan and many with a fully-structured outline – so what have I learned from the experience?  Well, “free-form” script writing typically means many more rewrites because these scripts inevitably need a lot of editing to cut out the flab, and a lot more scene shuffling, because the scene to scene plot progression and character development was not planned at the beginning.  And with the outlined projects?  They of course still require rewrites, but much fewer and the central storyline and character journeys in these screenplays were always much clearer from the start which meant that theme could be expressed through dialogue, action and visuals more instinctively.

With all these lessons learned, and after many development meetings where I had to present my ideas for rewrites, I ultimately invented my own screenwriting software Movie Outline specifically for screenwriters to outline a story before diving head first into a screenplay.  I discovered that free-form screenplay writing without following a proper structure sometimes pays off, and other times it doesn’t.  I also learned that you can still free-form your script during the story planning stage and the scene writing stage and it’s just as satisfying and rewarding.

Outlining and structuring my story is now instinctual for me as a screenwriter and it has made me a better writer.  It has also made developing a script with producers, directors and executives a much easier process, especially when you are trying to communicate your ideas for project changes.  So now, even if I get a great idea for a movie and want to start writing I don’t immediately leap into the script, I let the idea gestate and then start planning the story.  Sometimes I may write a scene if I have to get it out of my head and then plot where that scene can take me but I’ve managed to strike a balance between creativity and methodology and this is the key.. for me.

My advice for first-time screenwriters who are about to launch into their first screenplay is try to find your own balance between free-form writing and a structured approach.  I do recommend outlining your story first but try not to initially get too caught up on the “three-act” blueprint, any particular structural paradigm or too much detail. Allow your story and ideas to flow and then go back to what you’ve written and change it around if necessary.  Cut scenes out, combine scenes, clearly define your act breaks and don’t let formulas hinder your creative juices on the first pass.

This initial process helps you discover your own voice and style, and trust me, it’s better to write something crap on a blank page rather than stare at it all day or plan, plan, plan – sometimes used as an excuse by writers to procrastinate. As you become more accustomed to the screenwriting process, outlining and structuring will become second nature and crucially you will be able identify flaws in your script during the planning stage rather than waiting for someone to point it out to you at the end.

The Selfless Hero

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 2:04 pm on October 27, 2011

When we think of a hero in a movie we immediately assume we are talking about the central character otherwise known as the Protagonist, but many stories conceal a multitude of heroes, often unsung, in secondary, supporting roles that are just as important to the narrative and Protagonist’s psychological development and physical journey.

Think of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original “Star Wars”. He is a hero in his own right because he allows himself to be slain by Darth Vader in order to push Luke Skywalker toward the next stage in his journey. Without this sacrifice Luke would depend on his mentor to see him through the final conflict instead of believing in his own inner strength.  And that is the key to a good hero.  Someone who sacrifices their own needs – or indeed life – for the sake of the greater good.

When constructing a story, writers typically focus on the central plot and central character, and this normally results in villains and secondary characters entering the stage simply to support what has already been established.  This can inevitably lead to two-dimensional characters that become sounding boards or vessels for exposition, and a central storyline that makes sense but is unfulfilling to an audience.

Instead, try introducing well-defined, three-dimensional characters with their own lives and stories outside of the main plot and then weave these secondary stories around the central storyline, and design some of the Protagonist’s story choices around the secondary characters.  This may not always work and you should obviously never lose focus of the principle story and character but the process will open your mind to new avenues and hopefully create a more rounded and engaging narrative.

Treat every character as a hero, even the villains.  That’s right, villains are heroes of their own stories.  When we think of Alan Rickman’s enigmatic villain Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” we see a guy who wants to steal money and kill whoever gets in his way.  But perhaps there is more to his story than we know?  Perhaps the screenwriter explored a complex backstory for Gruber that never made it to the big screen – because it was unnecessary for an audience and would more than likely be overly expositional – but knowing about Gruber’s childhood and experiences may have helped shape the part.

I am sure that Alan Rickman didn’t just read the role as a villain and that was that.  Like all good actors, especially those who believe in “the method”, he may have tried to find a spark of humanity in Gruber, something he could use to justify Gruber’s actions.  Maybe Gruber’s father used to work for a big conglomerate like the Nakatomi Corporation and that they fired him and it lead to the break up and suicide of his father.  Gruber would of course never reveal this to his accomplices but for him, the heist meant more than money.  It was revenge and closure.  A salute to his father.

By understanding that EVERYONE in a movie has a story to tell and a life beyond the bounds of the movie screen and pages of a screenplay we can begin to view each role, from hero to grumpy waitress with only three lines, with the respect they deserve.  The truth is, that grumpy waitress is the way she is because her boss is a jerk, she has no love life and is working three jobs so she can afford to look after her sick mother.  She is the epitome of the “selfless hero” – but we’ll never know.

High Concept Movies

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 2:01 pm on October 17, 2011

For some screenwriters, penning an original high concept movie is the holy grail.  And that can be a good thing or a bad thing.  These days, the majority of Hollywood high concept movies seem to focus on the concept and leave out those little things like character development and basic storytelling.  I think the root cause of this boils down to the eternal struggle of many screenwriters which is whether to write for love or write for money.

If we’re fortunate enough to have a well-paid “day job” and this fulfills us then we probably aren’t worrying about paying the bills and so have the freedom to write movies that we want to see or simply embark on stories that we are interested in exploring, without the terms “marketable” or “box office success” influencing us.

But for the vast majority of writers, we do have to pay the bills and so there inevitably comes a time when somebody, perhaps a friend or agent says to us.. why not write something that is going to sell? And they have a point.  Sometimes you have to remember that screenwriting is a business as well as an art form and that people, including you, need to make money.  The problem is, if we set out to write a script purely to sell it, our heart and soul – two key prerequisites for any successful writing endeavor – may not be invested in the project one hundred percent and as such it may ultimately lack passion.

But you can still be interested in writing a commercial film and develop great characters and an original, engaging story without feeling like you have betrayed your artistic integrity.  Perhaps you really want to tell one story that is close to your heart and have shopped the idea around for a while but nobody seems interested.  It doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea or it won’t sell, but maybe you need to make your mark with another project first and then use the success of this to garner interest in your personal project.  It’s also about timing among a multitude of other factors.

The problem is, some writers never think about writing what they know and don’t want to tell personal stories, they just want to make money and become famous.  And most of these writers think that writing a high concept blockbuster is the solution.  Well, good luck to you.  Go for it!  It may work.  But I personally think you should strike a balance in your writing between commerciality and originality.  And when I say originality I don’t mean an original high concept movie I mean an original voice.

So the next time you think about the concept of your next screenplay, think about where you are in your writing career and what may help you get onto the next rung of the ladder. If a high concept movie is the answer then great, write one but approach the genre with respect and don’t just see it as a potential pay check.  The idea is to apply all of the tools of the trade to your high concept project so it includes in-depth character development, clever plot choices and original dialogue.

How’s that for a high concept

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