Friday, September 4, 2009

Barney Lichtenstein: A Story Analyst's Top-10 List: #5

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. This week is my final lesson on the Scriptmag blogspot. For the full top-10, click HERE.

#5 The Big Payoff
Look for strong set ups, or what I call “planted seeds” and their payoffs. An additional tip here: the greater the irony in the payoff, the better: The warden in Shawshank Redemption, a man who perverts use of religion, discovers Andy’s Bible to contain a small pick ax, explaining how Andy escaped; in Star Wars, Luke not believing in the Force at first, but finally using it at the climax to defeat the Death Star; air tanks and their volatility are referred to several times throughout Jaws, but it’s the cop, the one man scared of the ocean, who resourcefully uses a tank to destroy the shark; in The Wizard of Oz, ruby slippers -- cinema’s greatest MacGuffin -- are touted from the outset as possessing mysterious powers which endanger Dorothy, their magic revealed at the climax as they help bring her home. When a writer offers these types of setups and ironic payoffs, even if the structure of the material isn’t perfect, he or she is more likely to improve it in development.

Determining what I call “planted seeds” can occur in one of two main ways: foresight or hindsight. For example, in Back to the Future writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale knew they wanted Marty McFly to invent the skateboard once back in the 1950s. As they didn’t want this feat to occur out of the blue, they set up Marty as an expert skateboarder early in the script, hitching onto various vans and pickup trucks to get to school.

Often, however, the situation happens in reverse. It is critical to keep an eye out for details which may become “seeds” that get paid off later. In Pirates of the Caribbean, an early sword fight showed Will’s character having trouble with a certain swashbuckling move. At the climax, the writers were sure to refer back to that in order to make his sword play with the villain that much more dramatic, particularly when he overcame the deficit. Details such as these are what distinguish memorable fight scenes from the forgettable by developing character in the course of the action.

Finally, many seeds are actually created in retrospect. A writer gets to the third act, or climax, realizes he or she wants something particular to occur, then sets it up by going back and planting specific seeds prior. If near the end you suddenly want your heroine to recognize the right man for her by a visual detail or remark, you may want to go back and plant the line earlier on. For example, a running line about Monty Python from Gwyneth Paltrow’s true love in the supernatural Sliding Doors pops up at the fade out, suggesting the beginning of their relationship as the film ends. Its repetition by him throughout the script could have easily been added had the writer initially decided to end on that comic line, then go back in a rewrite to set it up. Again, the more ironic one can make the payoff, the more satisfying it usually is to the reader.

Remember that not everyone is going to like your screenplay, no matter how well written. Star Wars and Home Alone were passed on by just about everyone in town. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was initially rejected by a dozen publishers, who have probably since started their own private recovery groups. The metaphor I like to use is that showing your work is like planting seeds -- when it hits the right soil, it will take root. Yet selling yourself as a writer goes beyond any one story, showing your professionalism by addressing details a story analyst admires, in a well-written screenplay, can only bring you that much closer to making a great first impression, as you find the right company for your project.

For tip #1 click here.
For tip #2 click here
For tip #3 click here
For tip #4 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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