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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.

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.

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.

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.

Conflict is the Key to Writing a Good Story

Filed under: Dan Bronzite's Script Tips by Dan @ 1:05 pm on May 19, 2011

Nothing in life is easy, so why should “movie life” be any different?  Whether you are writing a drama based on true life events or a science fiction movie set on a distant planet, normally there is a common thread – characters.  An audience has to identify with your characters in order to empathize with their plight and have an interest and emotional connection with their stories.

So making your characters real is important.  And equally as important is making the situations they are in realistic.  That’s why introducing conflict is critical to writing a screenplay.  If your characters say, do or get what they want without any obstacles then it will not reflect real life and as such you will lose your audience.

Whether it’s a psychological obstacle or a physical one, make sure your protagonist’s journey isn’t simple.  If they’re hungry and drive to the store for food, make the cops stop them for speeding or give them a flat tire.  If they ask someone out on a date, make that someone already have a partner.  If they want to say “I love you”, give them a reason for holding back and make the fact that they don’t say it at that particular time cause problems in their relationship.

Apart from drawing your audience into the story, using conflict also makes it more rewarding for your characters and the audience when the hero does finally get the girl or save the planet from imminent destruction.  Having said that, don’t go overboard and make absolutely everything a battle of words or actions.  Pick your fights and choose wisely otherwise it will feel equally unrealistic.

And a final point: ensure that some of the conflict you introduce works on the scene level with nothing to do with the over-arching story or theme — such as your hero having a bad day and waking up the next morning to find out he/she has run out of coffee — and also on the story and character development level, i.e. your hero is wounded in a fight scene making it harder for him to face the villain in the final showdown.

Script writing is a creative process and while you may not like the idea of analyzing your work, sometimes it is good to step back from your story and take a look at the narrative’s event to event causality so as to ensure it is believable and engaging.

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