Friday, August 7, 2009

Barney Lichtenstein: A Story Analyst's Top-10 List: #2

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.

#2 Setting the Tone
Look for predominant tone established quickly and kept consistent, balanced. “Seeds” should be planted if the tone is going to change significantly (i.e. a serious prologue at beginning of Life is Beautiful suggests darker events to occur in a film which begins as a lighter comedy; mother’s concerns about crib death at the outset of Terms of Endearment create the same effect). Too often, scripts either start as humorless and heavy-handed, or too light and frivolous. Make sure the author is clearly creating a specific, effective tone.

Readers may wait for a central conflict, but from the opening sentence they are responding to tone. We may have no idea where a script is headed at the outset, but we instantly make judgments about something as being funny, dramatic or frightening. Regardless of genre, tone is established with your opening shot, and it’s amazing how often writers overlook this or take it for granted, failing to exploit fully what should be one of the most important aspects of a screenplay. As Steven Spielberg has noted, “Whatever mood you establish in the first 10 minutes of any movie, for me, that’s the most critical time in a film -- the first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes.” Whether writing a Hollywood horror flick or European character drama, the best filmmakers know how to capitalize on those initial images and lines of dialogue.

When it comes to fantasy genres, injecting the right amount of realism is critical in opening scenes, alerting the reader as to parameters of the universe explored. We readily suspend disbelief and accept the impossible throughout The Wizard of Oz, The Dark Knight, The Matrix, Spider-Man, Iron Man, E.T., and the Harry Potter franchise, not because we have simply been informed the genre is fantasy, comic book, or science-fiction, but because we comprehend that supernatural rules and occurrences possess a certain logic, while moments of human drama and even political statements place the fantastic elements in more meaningful context.

In terms of more realistic genres, balancing drama and humor can be equally critical in the opening pages of a screenplay to achieve the right tone. When Harry Met Sally interweaves genuinely touching real life stories from older couples as to how they met, keeping the hilarious banter between the jaded and non-committal leads from becoming overly glib, due to these reminders that fulfilling lifetime commitments do exist. On the other end of the spectrum, a dark prison drama such as Shawshank Redemption offers relief from its intentionally oppressive atmosphere through Morgan Freeman’s subtle wit and some (albeit sick) humor in the form of inmates taunting the “new fish” their first night. Had early moments of comic relief in Shawskank been non-existent, or worse, given over to broad slapstick (as easily could have happened in the hands of a less skillful writer), what followed could have been irrevocably damaged. It is not simply a matter of injecting details of drama or humor at the outset, but making sure their interplay adjusts nuances of tone to full advantage.

For tip #1 click here.

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 Mr Lichtenstein. I have a fairly checkered relationship with stoy editors in the past but your fresh and succinct insight is heartening. You're a traight shooter Mr L the kind of man I'd be happy to work with (or indeed learn from)

    Johnny Ferguson


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