Friday, July 24, 2009

Barney Lichtenstein: A Story Analyst's Top-10 List: #1

Having taught story analysis for film in the classroom and online through the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, I’ve trained a number of students who have gone on to cover screenplays for studios, production companies, and Sundance Institute. One of the tools used in the course is a top-10 list of professional screenwriting skills industry readers look for when evaluating material and writers. I call these methods “in-between details,” which are neither at the heart of premise, plot or characterization nor important issues of formatting and presentation -- they exist somewhere between the two. These in-between details often make a critical first impression, the following among the most significant, elaborated upon with examples and illustrations, which I believe can be quickly utilized. Lessons will be posted on Fridays.

#1 The First Page
Does the screenplay grab you in the first page, ideally the first sentence? It doesn’t have to be a bomb going off, but some aspect of characterization or plot which foreshadows or puts into motion a larger hook to come (mother packing bags at outset of Kramer vs. Kramer sets up walking out on marriage). Also, does it begin in the right place? Sometimes the perfect opening may be buried pages into the text -- keep an eye out for it.

Sometimes a central conflict, in terms of plot, is established on the first page, other times it may not appear until much later (ideally by the end of the first act, or your narrative will probably remain unfocused). In any case, the bottom of the first page should establish some conflict or question mark, regarding plot or characterization. If a screenplay hasn’t grabbed you in some way by the bottom of the first page, it’s in big trouble. This doesn’t necessarily mean the Joker robbing a bank or a shark eating a girl -- it can be a much more personal yet dramatic action, such as the mother leaving her son in Kramer vs. Kramer. There are two main ways to make sure you achieve this. First, distill your opening scenes as much as possible. Sometimes writers start with a three-page scene that would be much more powerful if condensed to just one. Occasionally, the opposite is the case -- certain scenes are rushed through that could use more time and detail. Usually, however, the trend is to overwrite in early drafts, so I’d suggest be on the lookout for that occurrence, particularly in opening pages.

Second, as noted, look carefully at the first five to 10 pages of your screenplay, or equivalent in the outline. It’s amazing how many scripts I’ve seen where just starting on page five, for instance, can make a huge difference. When Frank Capra screened Lost Horizon, the audience was bored throughout the first 10 minutes of expository scenes, so he took the first reel (each reel equals 10 minutes) and threw it into the studio incinerator, literally blowing it up. Don’t wait so long to get to that point of realization, if such is the case with your screenplay. If the opening pages contain potentially extraneous scenes or information, consider hitting the delete key.
Barney Lichtenstein, former story analyst for Amblin Entertainment, New Line Cinema, and Largo Entertainment, teaches story analysis online for the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, and periodically assists with the training of new story analysts for the Sundance Institute and major production companies. He has served as a story editor for a multi-award-winning installment of the PBS series P.O.V., and for Voices, which won the Peabody Award, and is recipient of the UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award in Screenwriting, 2006. Mr. Lichtenstein will be conducting a one day screenwriting seminar in September at UCLA Extension, comparing narrative structures of three 2008 Academy Award-nominated screenplays. Please click here for more information.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Barney, for these little nuggets of gold. They serve as good reminders for all of us.

    Dennis Escobedo
    UCLA Master Screenwriting Graduate


In order to prevent spam, comments are moderated. Thank you.