Category Archives: Movies

Screen Play Elements (Story) – Part 2

In my previous post Screen Play Elements – Part 1, I talked about the importance of the Three Act Structure. In this post, I’ll talk about STORY, what it means and how it’s used in the Three Act Structure. I’ll cover what makes Act One important, how Act Two is used to tell story, and Act Three’s role in ending the story.

ACT 1 – The Beginning
The first few moments during the beginning of the movie are critical to get right. The first moments establish viewer expectations wherein the writer is making a promise to tell a specific type of story. The genre, crime, comedy, drama, thriller, horror, fantasy or science fiction, must to be established up front. You can’t promise a comedy and somewhere in the script change it into a drama. Those first moments signal what type of story to expect and viewers will expect the conventions of that genre to be followed. For example, magic is acceptable in fantasy but not as a device to solve a crime in a modern setting (unless of course it’s urban fantasy).

If it’s an action story, start with action. If it’s a comedy, start with something comedic and light (including the music), if it’s a horror, start with something dark and horrible and scary. Establish the world your story takes place in. The beginning moments set tone, style and mood. Once we know what type of story to expect, the rest of Act One sets up the CENTRAL conflict and what motivates the protagonist to move forward into Act 2.

Remember the dreaded info dump that we’re told not to do at the beginning of a story? You know, explaining the world, explaining who the character is, what his or her issues are and what their favorite ice cream is? Same thing with the screen. In screen writing class, I learned a cool trick to approaching a beginning without info dumping. The trick is this:

MAKE THE AUDIENCE COME AND ASK YOU QUESTIONS

It’s that simple. Show the world, build the mood, put the protagonist into a situation or onto a course of action or set them in their regular routine but add something out of the ordinary to signal that there is a problem or to show a juxtaposition which makes us wonder WHY or WHAT IS HAPPENING? Even with an action or thriller, the first scenes may be unrelated to the central conflict, but they show action, attitude, and we are left wondering what the hero’s next dilemma will be.

Info dumping or shoveling information makes an author or screen writer look desperate – as if we’re trying to convince people to stay. It appears as if we’re desperately trying to show how much effort we’ve put into our special world and how much thought we’ve put into the character. It’s not about us. It’s about the story. STORY is what convinces viewers and readers to stay. Story is the hook. Info dumps are a NEEDY opening because it TELLS rather than shows. A CONFIDENT opening SHOWS without revealing everything. It makes us want more. Humans are curious by nature. We want to know what will happen next. If everything is explained up front, there is no reason to keep watching.

James Bond movies illustrate this point well. The opening scenes of a James Bond thriller have him involved in an action scene where the stakes are high and he’s outsmarting the villain. We don’t know the story behind this – this opening scene is there to captivate and intrigue us while setting the expectation for the type of movie we’ll see. In the next scene, James is getting his next assignment. Even then, we don’t get much information. The information we need to understand the villain and the dire situation, is meted out through the story. As James learns, so do we.

ACT 2 – The Middle
Act One establishes the plot – the genre, the world, the theme, the protagonist, the problem and the inciting incident. Unlike Act One, Act Two starts with us knowing the theme, the story and the problem. It has a clear mission for the plot.

This means that Act Two explores the ideas established in Act One. The exploration of these ideas is theme. Theme can be as simple as good versus evil, if that’s what your script is about. It can be about how people deal with death, if it’s drama. It can be about sacrifice for true love if it’s a love story. Whatever it is, understanding theme creates conflict and helps throw those proverbial rocks at the protagonist.

And throw those rocks we must, for that is how theme is explored and how action retains its momentum. The rocks get bigger, the hero is thrown into more dire situations and the issues surrounding theme become more evident. Half way through Act Two, there is the midpoint. At this midpoint, there is the AHA moment when something clicks or coalesces for our protagonist. The unsolvable problem has a solution. The protagonist beaten and thus far defeated by the villain, finds a way to beat the villain, or if inner resolve or confidence is lacking, the confidence begins to shine. The tables have turned and the protagonist finds a way to stop those rocks from being thrown. The protagonist becomes more active in his fate than merely reactive. The protagonist makes a CHOICE and that choice moves us toward Act Three and the final outcome. However, that doesn’t mean that there are no rocks left to throw because that is where the story would end and we would be missing Act Three.

The midpoint turn is structurally the fulcrum of the entire movie – the moment where the story stops being what it was at the beginning and starts becoming what it will be at the end. It is where chaos finally has a chance to become order and lack of control can become control.

But what is STORY?

Story deals with the issues which make a character sympathetic and they hook the reader into the character’s struggles. Story tells us why those rocks hurt so much. Story forms the character arc and informs the character’s choices.

Remember when I said to make your audience want more, to come and ask you questions? In Act One, through the opening scenes we get a hint of personality, a hint of background we don’t know but are curious enough to stay with the show. We know the character is somehow broken but we don’t understand why or how. In the second Act we learn more, bit by bit although we may not yet fully understand. Act Two reveals the past, the inner conflict, and explores the fear or issue the character is in denial of. Fears explore theme, inform the character arc, and make those rocks hurt even more. The elements of theme, character background, and character arc are designed to emotionally hook viewers. and collectively they are known as STORY.

Act 3-The End
We’ve talked about moving from chaos to order and from lack of control to control. These are the important points of plot and they will be wrapped up in Act Three. The villain is caught, the murder solved, the world is saved from the evil wizard. Solve the plot issues and you’ve got a good movie. Right?

Wrong.

Story, the part which forms theme and forms the character arc and the inner conflict the protagonist suffers from, must be wrapped up satisfactorily in Act Three.

 

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean:

#1 – A plot is completed in Act Three
The boy lost his dog. (Act One). The boy searched for the dog. (Act Two). The boy found the dog. (Act Three).

#2 – Plot and story (theme and character arc) are both resolved in Act Three
Tommy is having a hard time because his mother is dying. When his dog Sam goes missing, he chooses to look for Sam rather than spending time with his mother. (Act One) On his journey, Sam feels guilty for not being with his mom but he also wants to find his dog. He gets into situations and meets people who give him a differnt perspective on life. (Act Two)

The plot arc here is the hero’s journey during which Tommy enters the world of the unfamiliar and returns to the familiar a changed person. Tommy’s character arc must take him from denial to acceptance of death. Dealing with the death of someone you love is the theme. Here, story is about Tommy’s inner conflict of dealing with his mother’s impending death, the things he experiences and the lessons he learns about life as he searches for his dog and perhaps there may be some physical danger.

How do we wrap up this story in Act Three which wraps up both plot and story??
Tommy returns home. (He’s a kid and the hero’s journey dictates he return home.)

Perhaps the dog Sam doesn’t exist but is a metaphor for the loss Tommy is about to experience. So, Tommy never finds Sam, has to deal with that reality and he returns home and is more comfortable about being with his dying mother. OR, Sam is real, and Tommy finds Sam and has hope his mother will get better. If that hope is not realized you have a character who has to face a painful reality. OR, Tommy does or doesn’t find Sam and he returns home and learns his mother has died. That’s a huge tragedy and I’m bawling my eyes out! How Tommy handles the situation upon his return will illustrate how he has changed.

See the difference in examples #1 and #2? That’s the difference between a satisfying script creating a satisfying movie. That satisfaction comes from completing Tommy’s emotional journey and his character arc. We in turn feel either happy or sad depending on the final outcome.

A great ending must also be both surprising and inevitable. The clues must be there for the viewer to feel the conclusion is logical. At the end the audience must feel they had the ability to solve the ending all along. For example, while Tommy is looking for Sam, he tells someone that Sam is the best, loyal dog in the world, or he wishes he was. If in the end we learn that Sam isn’t real, it’s a surprise but also inevitable because we were given the clue that Sam isn’t real.

Screen writing and the movie industry have some very valuable lessons for writers on using the Three Act Structure to tell a story. Here are my three take-aways:

Act One is best used to make the audience ask questions and want more;

Act Two is where theme, inner conflict and character arc make rocks hurt a lot; and

Act Three is where the story ends in both a surprising and inevitable way, and a satisfying ending is created when both plot and story are resolved.

Whether writing a acreen play or a novel, the Three Act Structure is a great tool to help us tell our stories in a compelling and memorable way.

 

Screen Play Elements – Part 1

I have no trouble suspending disbelief when I watch a movie or a television show so I wasn’t good at analyzing how movies are structured. To better understand how big screen movies, made for television movies, and television shows are structured, I took an on-line screen writing course withi Bill Radkin. During this course, I came to appreciate what is involved in creating a compelling screen play.

If I asked you what are the two key points to writing a screen play, what would you say?
Strong plot. I agree. It’s important.
Snappy dialogue. Yes, that too.
Using formatting specific to screen plays. Absolutely.
Great characters. Of course.

All these things are important but there are two things which pull this list together to make a memorable movie. These are a having a good STORY and the THREE ACT STRUCTURE.

Today, I’ll explain the Three Act Structure from a screen writer’s perspective. You may understand the Three Act Structure for novels and have a general idea about how to use it, but for screen writing it is a specific formula. STORY has a specific definition and use within the Three Act Structure. I will delve into this in tomorrow’s post Screen Play Elements (Story) – Part 2.

In the following table, I have condensed the key elements of screen plays.

Key Elements of the Three Act Structure

Act 1 Act 2 Act 3
Beginning Middle End
25%

50% (25% + midpoint + 25%)

25%

Set up

Protagonist gets up a tree

Complication

Rocks are thrown at the protagonist

Resolution

Protagonist gets down the tree

Chaos More chaos Order
Lack of control/information Lack of control– midpoint AHA moment – control begins to be established Control
Central problem with inciting incident established. Ends with a major turning point in the plot/problem complicated and stakes raised by end of Act 1 More complications, major turning point around the middle of the act which is a reversal. Ends with a major turning point (taking charge of situation but not resolving issues), complication or escalation Final confrontation. Protagonist resolves problem /overcomes issues (depends if tragic or happy ending) and order is restored.
Plot oriented (you know where to begin) Story oriented (where theme and ideas are explored) Plot oriented (you know where it ends)

The TREE refers to putting the protagonist into a threatening situation.

The ROCKS are CONFLICT. Conflict takes two forms: external and internal.

External conflict is plot oriented and forms the action. It is the problem, disaster, or situation the protagonist will try to solve, get away from, or realize.

Internal conflict happens when a character deals with internal issues and some type of change occurs (not always. James Bond is always James Bond.) Character change or growth creates the character arc. Internal conflict means fear. The protagonist is afraid of something such as losing someone (family, society); losing something like wealth, prestige, treasure, or a job; or is afraid of change as brought about by an antagonist (the world as it is known, a societal or political change).

Every movie has one major or CENTRAL conflict which creates the SET UP in Act One. The problem is evident, the solution seems impossible, and the stakes are so high that the protagonist is compelled to do something. Once the protagonist is compelled to do something, that moves the story from Act One to Act Two. The Set Up occurs in the first 25% of the movie.

Having a strong central conflict helps avoid the murky middle of Act Two. All scenes must directly involve the central conflict. If they don’t, they’re not adding to the story problems and the story is going in the wrong direction. In other words, they’re not throwing rocks at the protagonist and making matters bad enough that he or she needs to finally figure it out and find some inner resolve to overcome the problem. This is a good point to remember when revising your novel.

A strong central conflict is also used to explore THEME whether it be as simple as good versus evil, the development of a person into a hero, or privilege and income disparity. All characters, reflect the theme as they are either for, against or ambivalent towards it. In every good movie, you’ll see this is true. We stay focused on the central problem and we’re hoping for a triumphant outcome until the end.

How do you know if you’re throwing rocks at the central problem or if the story has gone in the wrong direction? Outline. If you don’t like to outline from the start, do it when you’re finished. Write one line about each scene and focus on the rock. Then decide if the one-line description illustrates the central conflict. If it does, great. If not, either delete that scene or change it.

In the first half of Act Two, the protagonist’s problem keeps getting worse and worse and there seems to be no way to resolve it. The protagonist is missing information, is the hunted or the villain untouchable and keeps jeopardising the protagonist’s mission. Then, in the middle of the act, the MID POINT TURN occurs. Almost exactly (time it, and you’ll see). That is when the protagonist has an AHA moment in which he changes from the pursues to the pursuer, from the victim to the victor. Fortunes change at this point and chaos begins to turn into order. However, it is still a dangerous time for the protagonist because although fortunes have changed, the resolution is not easy. Rocks are still thrown, but they don’t hurt quite as much.

Act Three is where the resolution occurs. The protagonist is the victor except perhaps in a tragedy but the central conflict is resolved or explored to completion. Every question or issue which was set up in Act One is resolved and order is restored.

Pick a favorite movie and with these elements from the Three Act Structure in mind, time it. Do this for the great novels which have been turned into screen plays. Do this only once or twice otherwise, movies may become predictable and it’ll be hard to suspend disbelief and enjoy them. After all, the goal of a novel or movie is to take us to another world for a short time. By understanding how movies work, it’ll empower us as writers to tell compelling stories which readers will flock to.

Join me tomorrow when I discuss STORY.

Thor: Ragnarok – The Brilliance of Humor

Thor trailer imageThor: Ragnarok is one of the best Marvel movies ever.

Why?

It’s funny.

Other Marvel movies have done a great job of incorporating humor into otherwise serious films. The Guardians of the Galaxy movies are excellent examples, and I love all the excellent one-liners in the original Avengers movie. But Thor: Ragnarok is the first Marvel superhero movie that sets out to be first and foremost an action-comedy.

If you haven’t watched this latest installment in the Thor franchise, you might want to stop reading now to avoid any spoilers.

I love well-crafted humor. I include a lot of it in my Petralist YA fantasy books, so my professional interest is stirred in addition to simply loving the fun of this movie. I consider Thor: Ragnarok to be a masterpiece for the rest of us who utilize humor in our works to study and learn from.

There are those who claim that the humor actually undercuts the movie’s effectiveness by diminishing the stakes. It’s a tricky balance sometimes, and some decisions boil down to how the work is being positioned. Thor: Ragnarok was always positioned as an action-comedy, and as such it works brilliantly.

If they had chosen to make it a brooding, dark, serious film, the world-ending topic of Ragnarok could have tipped it into a real downer. Instead they dealt with that difficult topic brilliantly, turning the moving into a fun and very entertaining ride.

People have responded well to it. It has received the highest Rotten Tomatoes score of any Marvel movie (https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/thor_ragnarok_2017/), and has been a huge commercial success. Even though it still ranks near the bottom of the other Marvel movies for total worldwide commercial sales, it’s rising fast through the ranks. It’ll be interesting to see how it tops out in the coming months.

One of the cool things I learned while researching the film is that New Zealand director – Taika Waititi – was actually the voice of the super-funny blue rock monster, Korg. I also learned that a lot of their scenes were ad-libbed, including the funny dialogue between Korg and Thor when he’s trying to pick a weapon for his upcoming duel with the then-unknown Champion.

And for those who want to know more about that, here’s a great article by Jesse David Fox, interviewing Taika Waititi. Well worth a few minutes to listen. http://www.vulture.com/2017/11/thor-ragnarok-funniest-scene-taika-waititi.html

The humorous focus of the movie is set immediately with Thor talking to a skeleton while trapped in a cage, then having to interrupt the babbling of the scary fire demon, Surtur, while the chains holding him suspended from the ground slowly turn him in circles. The conversation both shares important information and includes ongoing funny beats.

Then we jump into a fun fight scene between Thor and the demon, Surtur.

Then immediately back to humor when Skurge (Karl Urban) fails to summon him back via the bifrost because he’s distracted by some beautiful women.

Take a look at the movie, study the different beats, from humor, to action, back to humor again, with some seriously dark scenes mixed in, usually thanks to Hela (Cate Blanchett) as she wreaks havoc on Asgard.

Some critics have claimed that the heart of the movie was missing since the humor can serve to diminish the stakes, but I disagree. Their homeland is destroyed, but Thor focuses on the need for change and the fact that it’s more important to preserve the people than the location, and that Asgard will live on through them. I found that message of hope, despite desperate situations worthwhile.

Works for me.

I’ll close with a few favorite quotes and images from the movie:

“It sounds like you had a pretty special and intimate relationship with this hammer. . .”
~ Korg

“The devil’s anus.”
Need I say more?

When Thor gets smashed back and forth by the Hulk and Loki leaps to his feet and shouts, “That’s how it feels!”

“Another day, another Doug”
~ Korg

 

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank MorinRune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Urban Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

Do Sci-Fi Movie Directors Dream of Electric Scripts?

This month’s Fictorians’ theme is “movie adaptations.”

I got lucky and snagged “Blade Runner.”

blade_runner_poster

When Blade Runner came out, I wasn’t paying attention enough to remember the obscure novella I had read at about the age of twelve. I was well into the movie before I put two and two together and realized I had read the source material. I remember thinking at the time, “When is he going to find that toad?”

That’s pretty close to a spoiler, I suppose. There is no toad in the movie. I don’t remember origami in the novella. Maybe there was some. Honestly, I didn’t remember that much about the novella. I had read it during a period of my life that I was reading three or four sci-fi novels a week. Plus classics like “Gone With the Wind” or “Moby Dick.” The novella simply hadn’t made that much of an impression on me. I had to go back and review “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” to realize just how far the movie had strayed from the original story. How far was that? Well, maybe not as far as the shoulder of Orion, but certainly well past the Tannhauser Gate.

So, since the movie is such a radical departure from the novella, you might think that would count against it as a “movie adaptation.” But I can’t say that, because “Blade Runner” the movie, is better than the novella. By a large margin, in my opinion. Ridley Scott took the basic story of a bounty hunter wrestling with the morality and mortality of “retiring” androids, and created a revolutionary multi-media experience, spawning an entire sci-fi sub-genre in the process.

There is power in the imagery of the film. The fusion of film noir and dystopian post-apocalyptic pathos simply oozes gritty, bloody, sweaty authenticity. By abandoning the original sub-plots involving Deckard’s wife (yes, wife) and their search for an animal of their very own, Scott was able to focus his grimy camera lens directly on the question of what makes us human. That gritty, shadowy vision paradoxically grants the movie near-perfect clarity.

That clarity reaches its climax with Roy Batty’s iconic farewell, sometimes known as the “Tears in Rain Monologue.”

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Time to die.

Like all great works of art, the movie has an ambiguous ending, allowing the viewer to decide for themselves what Deckard’s and Rachael’s future will be. The viewer isn’t even certain if Deckard himself is a human or a replicant. And that is the movie’s ultimate message. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. As Roy tells us, the value of life is not measured in the number of years we are given, it is measured in what we do with the years we have.