Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Secret

While all of you were out celebrating New Year's Eve, I was watching David Cronenberg's eXistenZ on DVD. Not that I'm such a pathetic hermit; it was just my wife's fun idea of closing the Old Year. She admitted afterwards she might have been wrong. Missing the Sydney Fireworks and all that.

Meanwhile, the Story Dept. has entered its third calendar year, offering workshops, one-on-one consultancy PLUS a Premium Version of this blog, exclusive to clients and
subscribers. The Hero's Journey continues, the obsession grows.


eXistenZ, named after a fictitious virtual reality video game, was released around the same time as THE MATRIX; the timing having been an excuse for its poor performance. I was surprised to see Roger Ebert's review not really giving us any critical assessment of the film; all he says is:"eXistenZ' is likely to appeal especially to computer game players". He probably means: "It sucked but I don't know why."

The film remains original and entertaining but I believe the end holds a crucial mistake as it turns out our heroes have been keeping a secret from us. This goes directly against a key principle of writing for the screen: a protagonist must share with us their knowledge and emotions.

In the Premium Edition (see also below) I will look at a few more examples of heroes who are ruining box office prospects by withholding information or being unreliable for other reasons.


When I asked one of my most loyal clients for a testimonial, he refused. I was baffled. "Karel," he said, "if you knew where the gold was buried, would you go and tell everyone?" At first I thought that was a lame excuse, but then I had no reason NOT to believe him. He is a film industry professional who always puts his money where his mouth is. He is continuing our collaboration throughout 2008. But I'm not allowed to tell anybody.

My Unknown Client says about the story theory I'm teaching and applying during my consultancies "it's the film industry's best kept secret." In many ways, he is right. Despite the title of Robert McKee's bestselling screenwriting manual 'STORY', he only dedicates a relatively brief section to the principles of story structure. Many screenwriting manuals do mention the three-act structure but forget to explain why it works and why it is successful. Without a proper foundation, the 3-act structure remains dead theory.

Some people say Australian film schools are gravely deficient in the area of structure and if I am to believe my clients, many AWG script assessors tend to barely brush over it, too. In an article in The Australian last week, Joan Sauers, Billy Stoneking and Duncan Thompson blamed Australian scripts. Again. And again they forgot to mention what William Goldman said: “Story is structure”. I say: we have excellent writers, but they fail to structure their stories. For that reason, the drama of screenwriting is not going to save our feature films. Daytime TV has drama. Only I am not going to watch it.

My Unknown Client is right: what pretty much every screenwriter in the rest of the world knows - and what some practice -, seems to remain the best kept secret in Australia.


Since September, about 60 people have attended my story workshops in NSW and the ACT. On 3 February I will be teaching my first workshop in Queensland, at the International Film College. For registration go directly to the web site of the IFC.

The next Story Workshop in Sydney will take place on Sunday 10 February at the NSW Writers Centre. For details and registration go here. The course fee is $99 for early birds (payment received on 20 January), for subscribers of this blog and for members of the NSW Writers Centre. Full registration is $125 for the day, this also includes tea and coffee, a CD with software, a glossary and a list with recommended reading.

(Note: The workshop is particularly recommended if you were thinking of hiring me as your script editor or story consultant. It introduces the essential vocabulary needed to discuss screen story and gives you an insight in the background and inspiration of my consultancy work. Workshop students also get access to the Premium version of the Story Dept. See below.)


I first recommended Celtx in October 2006. Until a year ago however, I didn't know anybody who was actually using the software. Since then, a handful of my new clients have taken the dive and are satisfied to the extent they are not (any longer) considering purchasing a commercial package.

Celtx keeps adding new features, while it remains free to download. A great tool is the file upload feature, allowing you to save a safety copy of your work on the private and secure Celtx servers. If you wish to make your script known to the world, you can make the file public. You don't have to.

Recently a client wanted to import a Word document into Celtx. The software doesn't provide for this (yet) but the support pages describe a method, which - in my case - worked beautifully.

And thanks to Mike Jones I now know you pronounce Celtx with a 'k'. The name actually stands for: "Crew, Equipment, Location, Talent and XML". The guys behind it don't call it screenwriting software, but 'media production software'.


The main raison-d'etre for script software is to get the formatting right. Unfortunately there are still a myriad of conventions that are not automatically dealt with and if you don't get them right, you are not considered a pro. Yet another reason why not to spend large amounts of money on software until you are actually making money writing.

Don't get me wrong: you MUST get your formatting absolutely right. When you pay a story or script consultant, you don't want to waste your money on layout notes.

Three of my clients who paid for script assessments through the Australian Writers Guild or directly to one of the script services, found pages of detailed feedback on format. As a matter of fact, the space it took up in the assessment seemed disproportionate to the essential and professional story and script advice you would expect. You don't pay between two and eight hundred dollars to find information you can perfectly find in a book under $50 or even for free on the web. The AWG are currently reviewing their script assessment service and IMHO it's about time.

Do I have the be-all and end-all solution to your formatting nightmares? No But I might just have a little life saver.

After reading a plug on the Mystery Man blog, I ordered a copy of David Trottier's The Screenwriter's Bible and found it one of the best resources for international script formatting. The book covers more than that but I value its section on formatting above anything else. Contrary to a number of other books and publications, it deals adequately with a number of specific issues, such as: phone conversations, intercutting, computer text, montages etc.


The Premium Edition of The Story Dept. is now live. For the cost of a coffee every fortnight you will get:

1) Premium Membership: unrestricted access to all past and future editions of the newsletters, for one year.
2) Stage One Story Consultancy, phone feedback FREE once per year (value AUD$89).
3) Stage Two and Three at loyalty discount rate, (up to AUD$72 off the advertised rate, each).
4) One Virtual Coffee: double-shot decaf skim soy cappuccino.

For all the above you will pay the grand sum of $89 If you were planning on taking the Stage One Consultancy, it means you're paying $0 for everything else. (Offer applies only until the publication of the next post on this blog)

Some ideas for upcoming Premium Editions:

- How to divide your story into three acts. There are many theories and it doesn't matter which one you follow, as long as it helps you to improve your story. Fact is: many writers aren't even sure where their stories' acts start or end.
- Structural Analysis. It's something I've long wanted to include in these articles and will soon do in the Premium Edition: Not for the sake of it but to help you identify crucial story points. I recently watched DIE HARD (#1) again and compared notes with the guys of MovieOutline.com (note: I am not endorsing the software). Interesting result...
- A bibliography of popular screenwriting books, plus notes on what I believe to be their strengths and weaknesses.

Sign up now for one year on the Subscription Page. The process is automatic and effective immediately upon payment through PayPal. You can have your temporary username and password within minutes. (Present clients may get access at no additional cost - conditions apply.)


My friend Zoe Harvey is looking for people interested in sharing office space:

"Office space for rent at 10a Hall Street, Bondi Beach. The office is centrally located in busy Hall Street, one storey above the street and one block from Campbell Parade and the beach. There are two rooms for rent, both with polished floorboards, high ceilings and new paint. The rooms can be rented either separately or together. One room is approximately 4 x 6 metres (24m2) and the adjoining sunroom which is 2 x 8 metres (16m2). Each room is $200 per week rented separately or if rented together $300 per week.

The office is fully serviced and rent includes all electricity, gas, water and ADSL 2 connection with unlimited download. The office is networked via airport hubs. The office currently houses businesses involved in film production and graphic design. Companies involved in film, TV, video, graphics or related industries would be best suited.
Incoming tenants will need to install their own phone lines. There is no off-street parking.
For more information please contact: Greg Read on 02 - 9365 5300 during business hours or email: greg@paperbarkfilms.com or Zoe Harvey on 02 - 9130 2544 / 0403 236 252 during business hours or email: zoe@torridfilms.com"


Friend writer/filmmaker Elizabeth Ban told me the HOLLYSHORTS film festival in Hollywood is looking for Australian short films. Here are the festival details:

HollyShorts Film Festival, Marina Del Rey, CA
February 15, 2008 - Earlybird Deadline


As you see I have switched the template for the blog as too many people didn't like the 'white on black'. If you prefer the old look, let me know by joining the poll in the margin of this blog. Many thanks!


marlene said...

Your 'Unknown Client' is quite right. I am a publisher of short stories and I don't have my nose so high that I don't see a great story when it comes along. Some of the best television series are written on napkins by people who can't spell. I am not looking for structured stories, just good ones.These stories that you don't need a dictionary to read sell very well and the film industry are always interested in new idea's. If you would be so kind and know some new writers, of short stories any genre,direct them to www.pickapocketbook.com

fnc said...

Blade Runner

Part of the reason for the initial failure of Blade Runner was it's crossing of genres (film noir, detective, science fiction) at a time when majority audiences were still looking for simplicity especially in their heroes. Some people are after pure entertainment and don’t like to think about deeper meanings - it creeps them out. Also the heavy use of symbolism, the nebulas nature of good and evil, and the impurity of the characters put it into the arena of an intellectual film. They also wouldn't have liked the idea of a world populated by replicas as a result of the conspicuous consumption they had been indulging in. And to top it off it would have been seen as a 'scare movie' prophesying dire results if people didn't change their current lifestyles and change their relationship with the world - after all advertisers had been telling them for decades that the manufactured product was better and safer than the natural. It goes to a basic psychological premise - a little bit of fear goes a long way too much is a turn off - especially as the film offers no comfort for humanity and no answers and ultimately points to the extinction of humans with the replicas ultimately having the legacy of all that is humane and human (personal flaws, fear, hatred, love, affection, the ability to see beauty and interact with it).

Have a look at the CSU website and there are stacks of books analysing it- there is currently a lot out there on Blade Runner the Director's Cut as it has been on the HSC list for the "In the Wild" for the better part of the last 6 years.

Ock said...

As an adjunct to the comment by fnc on Blade Runner's lack of success, I have two words: STAR WARS

Nonetheless, Blade Runner has made ample money since its release (regular re-releases, special editions and director's/final/original cuts help). I only hope a criminally ignored film like "Children of Men" is similarly recognized in the future. Also a basic 3 act story supporting a myriad of tantalizing concepts.

Karel said...

Keep the comments coming! Thank you!

On CHILDREN OF MEN: I thought the concept was sheer genius but I was disappointed by its execution.
I couldn't believe the wobbly cardboard space-cars, in a $90m movie and I found the actress playing the pregnant girl deeply disappointing. In London alone, I suspect you'll find at least twenty black actresses whose acting skills would knock your socks off. Michael Caine's character seemed too much of a caricature to me and we saw his death coming from a mile away.
Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood...

Brendan said...

I saw an Australian film last night called 'WEST'....After watching so many great Aussie films in the last few months such as LUCKY MILES & NOISE I thought I was back at an episode of 'The Henderson kids'. Are these people really from Sydney's western suburbs or are they cafe latte versions of what someone at Bondi thinks westies are like. Thanks for the cheesiest Aussie cliché’ film of the year that took painstaking time to point out VB, Bongs & Winnie Blue over and over and over and over again.....I am surprised they did not have a crocodile running through the film with someone 'chuckin shrimps on the barby' in the background.

I was completely unaware that every single person in the 'WEST' had an IQ of 47 and could hardly speak properly - Is there a reason why everyone in the 'WEST' slurrs their speech when they talk?(even when they are not drunk on VB) what a fucking insult...I felt for none of them - In fact I wanted them all dead cause they were all such misrepresentations of what people are like in the 'WEST'....

And the whole 'burning down of the cubby house' was such a lame metaphor for lost child-hood and broken friendship...... I laughed.

Have you ever opened a box of chocolates 2 days after christmas to find an empty packet? That is how I would sum up WEST. A shiny attractive package with no substance.
So what was good? The camerawork/lighting was superb, the editing was well measured but that's just part of that shiny chocolate box. When it came to the contents of the box such as believable characters and dialogue (substance) it felt overplayed and in the end it was empty - There were no chocolates.......I hate that!

fnc said...

Maybe I've seen too much of the genre but children of men reminded me of Farenheit 451 in tone. Could it be a remake of the Paul Newman movie Quintet?