Friday, August 21, 2009

Barney Lichtenstein: A Story Analyst's Top-10 List: #3

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.

# 3 Making an Entrance
Writing should make the most of a lead’s entrance (the back of Sean Connery’s head in first James Bond film; Bugs Bunny leaning on Elmer Fudd’s shotgun). The opening line of dialogue from the lead should let us know much about the character (“Bond … James Bond;” “What’s up, Doc?”). Even if someone is just commenting on the weather, ideally it should reveal something (sees storm clouds coming when there aren’t any -- pessimist; expects sun when pouring -- optimist).

There are several ways to check and possibly strengthen a lead’s entrance. First, look at various lines and actions of your lead character in the first few pages after he or she is introduced. See if anything could simply be deleted, with the most dramatic moved up (similar to or, in some cases, the same as omitting needless opening scenes). Second, see if a mundane line of dialogue can be sharpened to bring more characterization to it. A hero who walks into a bar and says, “I’ll have a beer” isn’t as dynamic as one who walks in and says, "Cold in a bottle." The latter shows he’s familiar with the bar scene and probably has a richer inner life. He’s likely the type to talk in a more colorful manner, not spelling everything out overtly (meaning less risk of overwritten dialogue, which the reader appreciates). He also seems tougher, as his request doesn’t open itself up as much to the inevitable question from the bartender, “Which beer?” The hero probably doesn’t care. If he walks in, grabs a bottle from a man being served, hands the bartender 10 bucks and says to both, “I’m in a hurry,” now you’ve really grabbed our attention. There’s an element of mystery to the man, we want to know more about his circumstances.

Finally, juxtaposing a dynamic scene with a mundane one can create an entirely new context. If we’ve just seen a masked man in a black body suit pull off an elaborate jewel robbery, à la James Bond, walk into a bar in jeans and t-shirt, casually asking for a beer, as police outside comb the crime scene, his opening line possesses an irony and humor that give it an entirely new meaning.

Just showing something about your lead in his or her introduction isn’t enough. Creating an element of mystery is critical in introducing major characters. Any opening line or action should make us eager to learn more about your leads and their situations. Too often, this is a critical opportunity beginning writers, and sometimes pros, overlook.

For tip #1, click here.
For tip #2, 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.

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