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Humor in a Dark Place

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 1:51 pm on September 7, 2011

The world we live in isn’t perfect and to be honest, although every day we all strive for perfection in one way or another, our lives would probably be pretty boring if Utopia did exist for us.  The simple truth is, bad things happen all the time and as human beings we are designed to deal with these events in different ways.  We all process information differently depending on our personality and the experiences that have shaped us and as such, not everybody is going to react to bad news in the same way.  Ultimately we are pretty tough creatures and it is our instinct to survive and we’ll do whatever we need to, with some exceptions, to live another day.

An example would be when a close family member or friend dies.  We cry, often uncontrollably.  We mourn.  We remember the good times. We go through all the stages of grief, but hopefully, at some point in time, we are able to move on.  We finally wake up one day without that horrible experience being the first thing on our mind.  We put one foot in front of the other and get on with our life.

Humor is one of those great wonders we are blessed with that can help.  Even in the darkest of places a witty line can suddenly put things into perspective and help to get us through a tough day.  It doesn’t have to be a joke, maybe just a comical observation or random, surreal thought.  Whatever it is, that moment of comedy works like a band aid and helps lift the tension.  This principle is also true when it comes to screenwriting.

Audiences love to laugh.  Now sometimes it may not be appropriate but that could be the best time to insert a subtle gag or some light-hearted comic relief into your script.  Okay, this may not be the greatest of ideas for certain sensitive subjects and scenes but why not give it a try and lighten the mood with a quip. Sarcasm is human nature and wit might lift an otherwise flat moment in your screenplay. Sometimes people laugh uncontrollably simply out of nervousness and not being able to digest the dark information that has just been fed to them.  And this can also create great comedy, especially if someone laughs at an inappropriate moment because this causes conflict and as we all know, conflict is crucial to creating an engaging story and three-dimensional characters.

Does your Story have a Theme?

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 1:48 pm on August 28, 2011

Theme is something writers frequently forget about during the script writing process simply because they are often focused on the other important and often daunting tasks of character development, plot design, act structure and dialogue, but theme is the glue that binds your entire screenplay and must always be well considered.

Many writers like to shoot from the hip and don’t even outline their story before jumping into a full script, and that’s cool, whatever works for you – BUT, that’s no excuse for not sitting down with your completed first draft or even revised second draft and taking the time to analyze it on various storytelling levels with theme being right at the top of the list.

Ideally you would think about it right from the get-go since the theme of a story should permeate through your entire screenplay and influence the shaping of characters, your plot and definitely dialogue.  The truth is, however, that sometimes we, as writers, dot not really know the true theme of our story until the end.  And other times we still do not recognize it and it is up to someone else to point it out to us.  However you discover the theme, make sure you at least try to find it because a story without a theme is like a pastry without egg – you’ll have all the other ingredients which taste great by themselves but you’ll have nothing to bind them together.

Theme can be many things.. Love vs. duty.  The consequences of pride.  Deep-rooted regret from never telling someone how you truly feel.  The atrocities of war and its many forgotten, unsung heroes.  Whatever it is, it is crucial to have a central theme and your story and characters around it.  It is the spine of your script and without it readers and an audience will notice that something is missing or that the characters do not ring true.  Especially important is the dialogue your central characters speak since this should also reflect the theme – through what is said and sometimes more importantly through what is left unspoken.

The great thing about ulteimately pin-pointing your story’s theme, especially if you only stumble upon it late in the day during the first draft, is that sometimes it turns out to be that final element that suddenly puts everything else into place, like the missing piece of a puzzle.  It may be that when you realize your theme, nothing changes.  But more often than not, understanding your theme instantly throws a whole new light on everything you have written and normally leads to some frantic yet exciting rewrites of scenes and dialogue to cement the expression of that theme throughout your screenplay.

Get Into Your Scene Late and Out Early

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 1:46 pm on August 18, 2011

As a screenwriter it is important to remember that while the stories we tell should reflect real-life (or aspects of it) in order to engage an audience and help them identify with the narrative and characters that inhabit the world we create, life is different from movie life.  In real life events occur in chronological order and time passes much, much slower.. even though some days may not feel like it.  If we recounted the story of our day in minute detail minute by minute to our friends over a drink after work, they’d probably shoot themselves or jump off a bridge with suicidal boredom because most of the events that occur are insignificant and uninteresting.

From the moment we are awoken in the morning by our alarm clock to the moment we arrive at work, many, many things have happened.  But put them all in a screenplay and it won’t be a blockbuster, unless of course your entire story is about an hour in the life of an everyday man who gets kidnapped on his way to work due to a case of mistaken identity!

A movie may begin by showing a man waking up, getting ready for work, feeding his dog and jumping into his car, and that’s fine.  It reveals certain things about the character that may be important for us to know before the story unfolds.  Similarly, a scene in the middle of a movie could contain these events, but ONLY if it is important to the character, plot or pacing.  Otherwise, condense those events into a shorter sequence of shorts or cut them altogether.

And that’s where the concept of “getting in and out early” plays its crucial part.  When writing a screenplay, you only have so much time to tell the story and so you must not waste those precious moments on things that don’t matter.  Why not cut from the alarm clock, to his irritated expression in bed and then right to him sitting down at his desk?  It still works, doesn’t it.  Absolutely.  And the great thing is we now have more time to spend on more significant plot and character developments.

I’m not saying go through your script and condense everything to the point that it’s all cut – cut – cut.. that would be equally annoying and give us a headache.  Pace means highs and lows, fast and slow, moments of intense action and lulls for us to contemplate what has passed.  The key is to find an effective balance and part of that is understanding when there is too much “chaff” in your scene to scene progression. So remember to get into your scene as late as possible and out of it as early as possible. This will tighten a flabby script and help focus your audience’s time and attention on the things that really matter.

Don’t Have Too Many Characters

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 1:43 pm on August 8, 2011

When you’re planning your screenplay make sure you only include the characters you need in order to tell your story.  It may sound like an obvious statement but many writers make this mistake because they just don’t think about it.  It can easily happen.  You outline your story, flesh out the arc of your protagonist, clarify your theme and then dive into the script scene by scene.  The problem arises because as you write event to event you simply introduce characters as they are required and before you know it you may have multiple voices all singing the same song.

Sometimes you may not even realize that this is a problem, let alone the problem with your screenplay and it’s usually left for others with a keen eye to point out.  So if you are certain that each character you create is crucial to your story, just take a little time at the end of the first draft to read through with this task in mind and double-check you haven’t doubled up on essentially the same supporting character.

And watch out for “sounding-boards” – you know, the best friend who literally just waits around off-screen for the hero to enter frame and unload their hopes and fears.  We all have them in our lives so I’m not saying get rid of them, just make sure you handle each “best friend” or “work colleague” in their own way so they have their own voice and own life so we, as an audience, don’t see that you’ve simply invented this guy or gal as a shoulder to cry on.  Make us feel that they have their own lives and even their own character arcs.  That’s right, just because their role in your mind is simply to be a sounding board, doesn’t mean you can’t develop their own journey.

Ask yourself, who is this person?  Why are they in this scene?  What do they contribute to the scene, protagonist/antagonist, plot and movie?  Are they merely a sounding board for you or your central characters?  If so, that’s not necessarily a bad thing so long as their dialogue and actions are handled deftly, but it is a bad thing if their dialogue is on the nose and expositional.  And it’s a really bad thing if they take on the same basic role as another supporting character, i.e. propping up the lead.

If you do find a few characters that don’t really have their own unique voice and personality or even life outside of the movie then perhaps you should consider either rewriting their dialogue and role, cutting them, or combining them with another character who is more clearly defined.

The point to remember with movie writing is that you only have so much time to tell your story – so use it wisely.  Don’t waste screen time on a character that is just there to plug a gap in an awkward silence or tell the audience the plot.  Again, there are always exceptions but generally you need to be succinct in your writing and that means limiting the number of speaking parts to those that are absolutely necessary.

Create Complex Characters that are not Black and White in Nature

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 1:40 pm on July 29, 2011

How often in life do you meet someone that is flawless?  Conversely, how often do you meet someone that does not have a single good bone in their body?  Never.  It’s impossible.  We human beings are very complex creatures and that’s what makes us so fascinating.  And that’s also what makes good movie characters so interesting.

We, as an audience, or as a reader, are usually not drawn to flat, two-dimensional characters that do what they say they’ll do and practice what they preach.  Most of us try to be good people and do good things but we all have flaws – it’s human nature.  Sometimes our own selfishness, jealousy, preconceptions and prejudice creep into our words and actions and it doesn’t make us bad people.. just human.

The same should be applied to the characters we create in our screenplays and novels. These people may inhabit an imaginary world but that world usually reflects our own, even if it is set on another planet, often there is a common thread of humanity that runs through the narrative.  If there wasn’t then we would find it extremely hard to identify with anyone or anything and the movie wouldn’t engage us on any level.

So the next time you sit down in front of your computer and fire up your screenwriting software, think about your central characters and their psychological make-up.  What makes them tick?  What are their hang-ups?  Are they coffee addicts?  Are they gym freaks?  Do any of their hobbies take over their lives to such a degree that they alienate friends and family?  Do they have bad habits?  Do they lie or cheat?  Do they drink or smoke?  Do they gamble or steal?  It doesn’t have to be a big flaw, even a small flaw can make a character appear more three-dimensional.

The other great thing about introducing flaws, even if they are just for you to know as the writer, is that they give you the opportunity to create comedy and conflict.  And if you use these flaws when developing your character arcs they will subtly influence character actions and their dialogue.  Sometimes creating a backstory for your character can help when deciding on a flaw because it gives you a sound logical reason for their behaviour and choices.

For instance, say your hero was bullied as a kid.  Maybe he was always picked on at the same place, and thus the image of this place was then burned into his/her memory and associated with bad things.  The place could be anywhere.. a hot dog stand, a library, a swimming pool.  The point is, as an adult (in your movie), this character can then have a hang up about eating fast food, reading books, or going swimming.  The hang up could be that he/she comfort eats hot dogs when he/she gets depressed, or throws up if he/she smells fast food.  He/she may have a bizarre hatred for book readers and book clubs, or read so much that he/she doesn’t have a social life.

And remember, the same principle can be used in reverse when writing your antagonist or one of his/her henchman.  Maybe your baddie kills people without a thought but has a love for flowers or pets.  Maybe he/she has a penchant for blades and making people bleed but when he accidentally knocks over a young school girl in his car, he feels bad and takes her to the hosipital and waits by her bedside.  It’s all about layers. Obviously, certain genres require an absolute “baddie” but even then it’s far more interesting to shape your characters using many contradictory layers.  Make them ambiguous in intent so the audience are constantly reassessing their motives and objectives.

Don’t Get Stuck on an Unresolved Plot Point

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 1:38 pm on July 19, 2011

Writers’ Block.  It’s a killer.  We’ve all been there, happily tapping away at the keyboard at our latest and greatest movie script in a creative stream of consciousness when suddenly we reach a dead end. A brick wall faces us and we have nowhere to turn.  We try idea after idea but nothing makes any sense.  We start to get frustrated but can’t give up because it’s such an important scene.  Damn!  We have to solve this.  The pressure mounts.  And mounts..  But nothing.  Nada.  Zip.

“What am I gonna do?!” we think or perhaps exclaim out loud.

The whole script hinges on this particular plot point or piece of dialogue. If we can’t solve this we might as well trash the script.  Oh my God, I’m never gonna get that friggin’ Oscar! Okay, okay, calm down. Really, dude.  Take a breath.  It’s not that bad.  There is a solution.  All hope is not lost.. even though it may feel like it.

So, the solution.. what is it?  Simple. Actually, there are three:

1.  STEP AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER!

That’s right, folks, sometimes we get so caught up in the moment and our own self-imposed frustration that our mind ceases up and can’t process clearly.  The best thing to do in those situations is to take a break and do something else.  The script’s still going to be there when you get back.  I usually make myself a coffee and watch some TV.  Other times I take out the trash or put the washing on.  Whatever.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s simply the fact that you focus your mind on something other than writing for a while and this unclogs everything and gets the creative juices flowing again.

It works.  Trust me.  Been there, done that.  In fact, most of my best creative writing ideas have come away from the computer.  It’s the same principle as setting yourself a problem to solve as your head hits the pillow at night and then waking up the next morning with a clear head and 90% of the time a solution.  Somehow our subconscious brains keep on working behind the scenes and help us out.

2. MOVE ON TO ANOTHER SCENE

That’s right.  If you can’t figure out the solution just move on to the next scene or rewrite an earlier scene.  It’s the same principle yet again. By doing this you will be opening your mind to new ideas which will undoubtedly present themselves once you have disengaged from the stumbling block in question.  Sometimes focusing on another issue is the answer. Sometimes you may not get an answer right away but don’t stress yourself out by creating even more pressure, that’s just counterproductive.

3. REWRITE THE SCENE FROM A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

Your third option is to rewind a few pages and then attack the troublesome scene from a new angle.  If the hero in the original draft jumps into his car and goes to the bank in order to confront his adulterous wife, maybe he is forced to take the bus because his car won’t start.  Maybe he has an accident on the way and ends up in the emergency ward.  Maybe he gets to the bank and she’s not there.  You see where I’m going here?  All of these ideas will give you new avenues to explore and whether or not they will end up in the final screenplay is not the point, it’s the process that is important.

Character Arcs are the Foundation of an Engaging Story

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 1:23 pm on July 9, 2011

So what is a character arc, you ask?  Sounds complicated.  Well, it doesn’t have to be, although a complicated character arc may be just what your screenplay needs. A character arc could also be described as a journey that a person goes on during the course of your movie, or the development in their personality they experience or the evolution of an aspect of their persona – such as emotional, physical or psychological.  All of the above are valid character arcs that could help to engage an audience.

Why does a character need an arc?  Well, it may be intentional that your protagonist (hero or heroine) doesn’t, and if so, that’s fine, so long as it is clear that is the case and that the rest of the story and theme support this choice.  But more often than not a film will lose an audience if the lead character does not go on some kind of transformational journey.

Think of Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars movie and also in the complete franchise.  He starts off as a naive farm boy with foolish hopes of exploring the solar system. He struggles with authority and even the notion of responsibility and “The Force”. But as the story progresses, obstacles are thrown in his way which he must summon up an inner strength he did not know he had in order to overcome, and by the end of the movie he is living his dream, fighting villains and saving a Princess.  That’s his arc.  That’s his journey.  Without it the movie wouldn’t have been so engaging.

And what’s more, he’s not the only one in the story with an arc – and that’s a key point.  When writing a script, don’t make the mistake of focusing all of your attention on the hero’s arc.  Sometimes it is equally as important to plan an arc for the antagonist (villain) and supporting characters so that they too read as three-dimensional, real-life characters that have their own lives outside of the movie we see and that they are not simply there to support the hero in his quest.

To sum up: if you want your audience to truly identify with your protagonist then create a complex journey for them to take. Everybody has hopes, fears, dreams and flaws.  Make sure your central character has too.  What is their goal?  Is it emotional or physical?  What do they really want? How will they change throughout the story?  What obstacles force them to change?  Ask yourself these important questions as the narrative progresses so that each key event of the story not only serves the plot but is intrinsically linked to the overall “theme” and your central character arc.

Montage Sequence – Friend or Foe?

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 1:17 pm on June 29, 2011

Instead of writing a bunch of short scenes with little or no dialogue as separate steps in your story, why not group them together in a sequence and count it as one scene?  This way you can still give the audience the information they need but you compress the method in which you reveal it – adding pace to your story.

Okay, you say, we’ve seen this a zillion times in movies.. and it’s called a “montage”.  A sequence of shots, typically put to music to show the condensed passage of time.  It’s a screenwriting device that sometimes helps a script and sometimes, as with all over-used devices, hinders it.  Just like anything you do when creating a screenplay you have to make sure that every story, character or stylistic element is justified.  That means, asking yourself the question “Does it make sense to have this here?”.

The typical use of a montage sequence can be seen in movies like The Karate Kid or Flashdance – whereby the central character has to learn how to do karate or how to do a complicated dance routine.  If the scenes were played in real time the audience would be sitting in the movie theater for weeks and would probably be a little bored.  Similary, if you just jump to the scene where the Karate Kid does the “crane”, the climax wouldn’t have any impact and we’d be asking ourselves how in hell did this scrawny little kid suddenly know how to do such an amazing karate kick!  It just wouldn’t be believable.

So it is clear that in this example that a montage sequence is necessary.  But the problem is, we’ve seen them done so many times it forms a part of our instinctive cinematic language.  This can be a good thing, because we know what’s going on and don’t have to be educated – we just accept it.  But conversely, it doesn’t really break any boundaries for the cinematic art form and can often be the choice of a lazy writer.

If you decide that a montage sequence is absolutely the only way you can convey your character’s emotional or physical development in a short passage of time then go ahead, use it, but try to be innovative.  Maybe don’t use music.  Or perhaps use split-screen so the events unfold in condensed time in parallel to real-time events. Maybe you could even disguise the sequence through other techniques such as CGI, voice-over, flicking through pages of a book.. who knows, that’s up to you.

The point is, whatever screenwriting device you use from your creative writing toolbox, don’t be lazy.  Always force yourself to find a creative solution to your storytelling and never settle for something because it’s the easy option.

The Power of the Flashback

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 1:14 pm on June 19, 2011

Flashback can be a clever device or it can be an annoying one.  If you use it sparingly and don’t rely on it too heavily to tell your story then it can really help with the revelation of subplot, the recollection of key past events tied into your current plot, and the resurgence of repressed memories – sprinkling a little style at the same time.

When learning how to write a script, think of flashback as just another weapon in the screenwriter’s armoury. Sometimes it may help you, other times it may just get in the way or over-convolute the story, but if you use it correctly this device can be a fantastic visual aid.  Don’t use flashback because you are lazy.  If you can find another way of telling your backstory then be innovative and pursue a more creative route that doesn’t rely on exposition.

Only use flashback if there is no other way to convey past events or if you feel that introducing flashback (or indeed flash forward) will enhance the piece in a stylistic manner.  Sometimes writers even use flashback to intentionally confuse an audience or lead them down a particular path so as to turn the tables on them later on.

A great example of this was in The Usual Suspects where Kevin Spacey’s character retold past events to the cop Chazz Palminteri.  We bought the story he was feeding us hook, line and sinker. And why not?  We had no reason not to believe that what he was saying was the truth, and the director also presented the backstory as the truth with no hint to subterfuge.  Then, right at the crucial moment in the third act, the writer and director pulled the floor out from under us and revealed that Kevin Spacey had been lying and that he was in fact the villain of the piece Keyser Söze.

Flashback, like any screenwriting device, such as voice-over, can be used or abused.  Good writers use it in a way that enhances the narrative and character development of a movie without relying on it to solve plot problems.  Great script writers find innovative ways to play with this cool device so that it feels fresh yet at the same time familiar. The trick is, striking the perfect balance.

Remember the Golden “Rule of Three” for Writing

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 1:11 pm on June 9, 2011

I know some of you writers out there – yes, you know who you are — don’t like rules and formulas and are ruthlessly resistant to following any kind or paradigm in your script writing efforts but the simple truth is that patterns and methods exist in life and art and often it is the artist’s task to present them in such a way so that they enhance the drama but do not stand out like a sore thumb.

Even Gene Kelly used technique.. He didn’t just wake up one morning and do a back flip but he was such a master at his craft that he made every dazzling move look seamless and effortless through years of practice and applying technique to creativity.

The job is the same for the writer.  To create a story that has technique and intention yet uses tried-and-tested screenwriting devices where necessary and the writer’s skill to present the events that unfold in an organic way so that we, as an audience, hook into the plot and the characters that inhabit the depicted fiction world before us.

So with that in mind, you, as a screenwriter, must learn that the “rule of three” doesn’t just apply to telling jokes.  That’s right, you don’t have to be a comedian (but it sometimes helps) to use this technique in your own scripts to make your narrative and character development have more impact.

In order for an audience to remember an important piece of information or to fully understand and identify with your screenplay’s clever third-act twist, you first have to set it up, then you remind them (usually in a subtle way) and then you make that jaw-dropping pay-off!  And it doesn’t just apply to your overall act structure but also to scenes and the dialogue within them.  Just as a witty one-liner may have a beginning, middle and end, so does a monologue, a heated dialogue exchange, a fight and a car chase.  The rules appear everywhere to varying degrees.

A crude example would be your hero entering a trendy club and noticing an ornate bowl of nuts on the bar.  He takes one as he asks the bartender some questions.  Then during the middle of the scene a seductive woman approaches him and they exchange some dialogue.  He’s not interested but as she departs she mentions how the nuts he’s eating contain germs since people don’t wash their hands.  As we approach the end of the scene, the hero comes face to face with the person that has been following him all day and they have a fist fight while everybody around them watches on.  The hero ultimately wins by reaching behind him, grabbing the bowl of nuts and slamming it across the guy’s head.. maybe even ending the scene with a witty retort about how the woman was right and that the nuts are bad for your health.

Setup. Reminder. Pay-off.

Now, would the scene work as well with only the first and last visual of the nuts?  Or perhaps just the last? No. One – Two – Three. Simple yet extremely effective.

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