Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Yada Yada Yada...

Recently a friend recommended I should teach a course on screen dialogue. I found this surprising as I am not an expert on dialogue. I am not a native English speaker and I most certainly lack a deep knowledge of vocabulary.

My main reason for not jumping into dialogue workshops: I often read great dialogue, but I have never received one spec script where the structure couldn't be improved.

Structure is my shtick.

There is still so much to learn in this area, and you can't find it all in the books. I told my friend I have only scratched the surface and I'll turn my attention to a new area once story and structure have revealed all their secrets.

I mentioned this conversation to one of my most respected clients. He thought his use of dialogue had improved significantly through our development sessions. His script is certainly going the right direction: The coverage from a mini-major was thorough and contained genuine praise. Anyhow, it started me thinking about how I approach dialogue.

Because many writers love dialogue so much, I will stray from my path and share five principles. I am sure there are other, more important rules, but these are the ones that spring to mind. If you go against any of them, you need to have a very good reason.

About dialogue:
1. It should contribute to subtext more than plot.
2. Its semantics should be perfect, not organic or defective.
3. Its grammar SHOULD be organic and defective.
4. Its rhythm should support the scene's rhythm.
5. It can be reflective, not reflexive.

There is one more secret rule I love, which I only give away to my students and clients. It's about that one specific scene where you can - and must - break almost every rules.

Each of these techniques is a challenge in itself and you must develop a process to be aware of it during your own editing. Great dialogue doesn't usually flow naturally from your pen. It is laboured, crafted and endlessly polished.

That is why often at the very end of your development, when you are tantalisingly close to the final draft, you will need to do a thorough 'dialogue pass' and make sure every line and every word hits the mark.

Inexperienced screenwriters have great trouble judging whether their dialogue really works. This is because of their own tastes, education, movie influences etc. Another reason why they will always need a pro to do a final polish of your work before you send it out, even if the story works.

It can be tremendously helpful to workshop your lines with actors before committing to a shooting script. Beware: inexperienced actors will almost always favour dialogue over subtext.

Oh, and I fully agree with Robert McKee that often the line of dialogue the writer is most proud of, should be cut. Because Tarantino and Woody Allen get away with it, doesn't mean you should push your luck.


Right after learning the principles of structure, it will be hard to apply them to your own work immediately.

Better is to consolidate your understanding by applying it to films you know, by watching them and identifying the key turning points.

A breakdown in scenes or plot points is an excellent start. To help you with this, I will regularly publish examples from different genres.

My structural overviews are hardly definitive. They are often different from the views of people I regard very highly. That doesn't make either of them 'wrong'. I don't believe in 'formula' and the main concern is to find a process that helps you creating and critiquing a structure so it has the best chance in the market place.

On the other hand, they can often be improved and I welcome your input.

Now, a lot of work goes into these structure articles and I want to reward my clients and Premium Subscribers, who pay for my time. Therefore, these overviews will only be accessible to non-paying readers for a limited period of time. During this time, you can copy it for your own use, not distribute it in any way or for any purpose without my written consent.

So far I have published five analyses:

Assault on Precinct 13 (Original Version)
Michael Clayton
Ghost World
Terminator 2
The Shawshank Redemption

The first two have gone Premium already, the remaining three will too, at the time of publication of my next post. But more will follow, so keep watching this space.


I filled my shopping trolley with $489 worth of groceries and at checkout I said:
"I want all for free: soon I'll have a big family to feed and you'll make so much money, it is worth getting my business now!"
Guess what: it didn't work.

--- (deeeeeep breath - preparing for loooong whinge) ---

Every f***ing week people email me asking to read their work - FOR FREE. They all believe they have written the latest blockbuster, indie comedy, crime caper, romcom, etc. You name it.

And they all really - really - want me to spend half a day or a day of my precious time reading their shit rather than earning a living or spending time with my three-year old son Baxter.

Guys: this is my job.

Do you ever go into work in the morning and tell your boss:
"Hey listen, today I'm just doing you a favour, don't pay me. I love my job SO much!!"
With the persistence of leeches on steroids these people try to make me believe I am ruining my chances of becoming a billionnaire producer if I don't read their stuff.

Some keep coming back. Day after day. Week after week. Year after year.

Ever heard of the expression "pushing s*** uphill"?

Mostly I just try to make them see the light and sell my services, because without professional help they don't stand a chance of ever getting read.

But sometimes it just drives me plain mad.

If these writers had done their research on who I am, they would have known my views on screenwriting are pasted all over my three web sites. These sites have decent rankings and show up whenever you google my name.

Interestingly, the pattern is quite common:
1. First they send a sloppy synopsis, which;
2. I reject.
3. Then they tell me the script is better than the synopsis.
4. I kindly explain I don't work like that.
5. They insist I should read the 120p. script.
6. I reiterate what I have explained before, but offer to read on a consultancy basis.
7. They insist by repeating exactly what they have said before, only LOUDER.
8. Etc. etc. etc.

Sometimes I give in.

And guess what: in the rare cases I can free up time to read ten pages or so and give them free feedback, people get offended.

Only yesterday I received a highly insulting email in response to what was a polite, professional - free of cost - assessment of (part of) a screenplay. You're not prepared to lose? Well, don't play.

Which brings me to the following, more positive consideration:

I am very proud to say I am one of the very few consultants around the world who is completely transparent about their approach, their knowledge and their fees. You can read two years worth of articles on story and screenwriting in this blog, in which I am 100% open about my views on the craft.

But, you know what? Some of these people are just not interested in screenwriting. They just want some money to get their film made.

Apologies if I start to sound like a cranky old bastard. True, I am one. But I don't want to sound like one.



Currently I am working with six smart, dedicated writers with promising but unfinished stories. They have committed to regular consultancy sessions over a period of four months or longer. Yesterday an existing client signed up for the Intensive Pack.

More than a dozen return clients book regular Step Outline sessions and over the past two years, more than a hundred satisfied clients have paid for one or more services to improve their skills.

The Story Department - Premium Ed. has subscribers from both Australia's East and West Coast and from overseas.

The Story Workshops have been endorsed by Screen Development Australia, The ACT and NSW Writers Centres, The International Film College, and recently also the Australian Writers Guild, with whom I'm working on a workshop in South Australia.

If you have been considering joining a workshop or hiring my services, perhaps now is the time to get your project finally on the rails!

And more good news:


The Story Department is now officially toilet-trained.

I have been crapping on about structure for a full two years now. No fad. Can you believe that even with 24 months, we haven't even made it into the average life span of Technorati's TOP 100 blogs?
Slowly the world is getting to know The Story Department:
- We are listed on Scribomatic (two places up from UNK).
- We are being interviewed by The Digital Production Buzz.
- We'll soon be interviewed on IF Magazine.

Also coinciding with the second birthday, there is a lot of news to be shared about the Premium Ed. too. Here we go:

- Australian readers can now enjoy much faster browsing and download speeds, thanks to the mirror site, hosted in Melbourne.
- Telephone consultations can now be recorded and made available to clients as mp3 downloads. No more frantic note-taking during our creative discussions.
- Top-level clients now receive a personal, password-protected web page with documents related to their projects.


I am giving away a free one-year subscription(*) to the Story Department - Premium Ed. for the first three people who subscribe to this free blog.

Just enter your email address at the top right of this page. You'll receive an email each time a new post is added to this blog, which shouldn't be more often than once every week or two on average.

The three winners will get:
- Premium Articles direct to your email inbox
- The Story Dept. - Basic Edition (this newsletter)
- 15% off Options One and/or Two
- Discounted rates to selected workshops

(* The prize does NOT include the free Story Diagnosis)
Good luck!


Friday, April 25, 2008

It's Academic

"What need is there to think of these events as having three acts? None."
-James Bonnet


Why the 'three-act' structure? Why not the 'three-part' structure? The 'five-act plan' or the 'ten-sequence' tale?

It's purely academic.

First there were stories. People studied them and found similarities in those that worked, elements that seemed to lack in those stories that didn't. To be able to talk about it, they gave those elements names.

It's that simple.

Aristotle talked about 'beginning, middle, end', or rather: beginning, complications and denouement. Theater has continued using this rough three-act structure.

In the late seventies, Syd Field built further on this and he designed 'the paradigm', a 'three-act structure' specific for movies.

Since then, many have studied the structure of films and refined that crude framework into something far more practical and sophisticated. Beyond Aristotle, but firmly grounded in the foundations he built.

The motivation to study the components of story - for me and many others - has always been partially a scientific curiosity into 'how stuff works'. The three-act structure has proven to be a handy tool.

But the other motivation has always been: money. A better understanding of how audience perception works, may result in a more successful approach to screenwriting. Good business for screenwriters and producers.

Plus: with hundreds of thousands of aspiring screenwriters around the world, there is business potential in selling your ideas to this group. Syd Field soon found out after the release of his book SCREENPLAY.

Those that came after him learned that merely re-hashing old models won't work; you will need to come up with an improvement of the existing theories. That's one reason why authors keep putting their own spin on the material.

On the other hand, we have to constantly update our understanding of story structure for the screen as audience expectation changes. Cinema goers and television viewers become more and more demanding.

Still, the whole damn thing is entirely conventional.

The only purpose is for you to find a way to improve your story. And by 'improve', we mean: increase the chances of reaching a wider audience, according to principles that can be learned.

McKee says something like: these principles don't say "You MUST do this." They say "IF you do this, then...". In other words, these principles have been empirically deducted from studying stories that work.

Scientific? Oh yes.

No-one cares whether you have three acts, eight sequences, twelve or one hundred and eighty-eight journey stages, as long as it works.

Why to speak of three acts? Because if you don't, and you still want to talk story, you'll have to come up with an entirely new system. And convince the rest of the world to use it.

If, like James Bonnet, you don't want to use the three-act structure, go for your life. You may well achieve the same - or even better - results. But when it comes to discussing your work with others, you may find yourself in a foreign country. And no-one speaks your language.

You may find it's a pretty lonely world out there.