3 Story Lessons from Christmas Movies

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

The season is approaching for a category of stories that have been beloved by audiences since the earliest days of film and television. Though America’s customs have shifted and melded throughout the decades, and a number of different religious traditions are celebrated in mid and late December, only one has amassed such a number of films to establish its own genre. I’m referring, of course, to the Christmas movie.

Wrapped presents, decorated trees, nativity sets, stockings, home-cooked food, and perhaps even a visit from Santa Claus himself are all tropes that create an environment of nostalgia and joy for many moviegoers. However, without a solid story behind them, these elements simply become archetypal window dressing. When done well, Christmas movies remind us of the reasons why this season has become so special to so many people. Here are three story lessons we can take from Christmas movies.

1. Family Issues Always Make Great Stories

Examples: Daddy’s Home 2, National Lampoon’s Christmas VacationA Christmas Story

For many, Christmas involves travel, carrying packages, and seeing relatives that we only encounter once a year. There’s a reason why we love to laugh at the difficult cousin that insists on talking politics at Christmas dinner – because so many of us have been there. The holiday season is a time when people express their love to the ones they’re closest to, but when emotions are running so high, there’s bound to be a few road blocks along the way. While conflict in families can work as a powerful tool in any film, finding an organic reason to put families in the same physical space can be challenging. Christmas is an ideal way to accomplish this, but certainly not the only way. Weddings, funerals, births, birthdays, anniversaries, and retirements are just a few ways you can force characters into the same room together.

2. We All Sometimes Feel Like Fish Out of Water

Examples: ElfRudolph the Red Nosed ReindeerFrosty the Snowman

The holidays are not a pleasant time for everyone. Some are confronted with the absence of family members who used to gather with them. Others are faced with their own loneliness. The emotions of the season can highlight what we don’t have instead of those things we should be thankful for. Stories that remind us that we all feel out of place at different times can be of great comfort. Seeing a character that struggles to connect with those around them can both make us laugh and make us cry. These stories create a sense of empathy within us and give us hope that others may have empathy for us. Most powerfully, they can bring assurances that we are not alone.

3. Moments of Reflection Are Universal

Examples: A Christmas CarolScroogedIt’s A Wonderful Life

The reflective holiday film has almost become a genre unto itself. There’s a reason these films seem to resonate with audiences year after year. Our lives feel busier every year. Things never seem to slow down. It never becomes easy to find the time to process and contemplate the experiences we’ve had – and yet we all continue to recognize the importance of it. Seeing characters stop and smell the roses, be confronted with the unhealthy ways they are living, and decide to turn over a new leaf give us hope that perhaps we, too, are capable of doing so. As with family stories, we must give characters a reason to pause their lives. While the holidays can be a great excuse for this – an illness, the death of a loved one, and being fired from a job are all other motivating factors in stories that revolve around a character who ends up experiencing a reflection.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-11-29T11:44:07+00:00 November 29th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

3 Basic Steps for Building Suspense in Your Screenplay

by Jeffrey Michael Bays (@BorgusFilm)

If someone were to say that they love your latest script, but it could use more suspense, what would you do? Suspense is a part of the storytelling craft that has traditionally been left to mysteries and thrillers. I’ve been saying for a while that any genre, including romantic comedy, can benefit from suspense. In fact, I use the romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail as an example of suspense in my book.

If your script does happen to be a romantic comedy, the suggestion of adding suspense may throw you for a loop. Lucky for you, I’ve boiled it down to three basic suspense-building steps that are guaranteed to keep your next audience riveted.

STEP 1 – SHARE A SECRET WITH THE AUDIENCE

Suspense really isn’t about knives, screams, and chases. It’s more about provoking your audience into getting involved. It’s about connecting with your audience, making them care, making them so involved in your story that they want to reach into the screen and help. You want them to be so enthralled by your story that they forget about Facebook and desperately follow every turn of your plot.

The easiest way to do this is to play upon a secret. Your protagonist knows a secret. This secret can be anything – a hidden pregnancy, trespassing on private property, or knowledge of a crime, etc. If this secret gets out to any of the other characters, it spells certain doom for their outcome.

Bring the audience into this secret. Make them feel privileged to have this private access to the protagonist. Then you can begin to play upon the prospect of the secret getting out and protagonist getting caught.

STEP 2 – TEASE WITH CLOSE-CALLS

Once you involve them in this dangerous secret, tease the audience about this secret getting out. This is where you write a close-call moment, where the protagonist forced to lie about the secret to another character who is very close to catching on. This lie provokes the viewer. We feel special, and our bond with the protagonist rises.

The key to increasing suspense is to milk this moment. Dance as close as possible to “getting caught,” but hold back at the last minute. This tease makes the audience anticipate and hang on, waiting for the excruciating inevitability, hoping that the secret will go undiscovered.

At the last minute, the danger goes away, and the secret is safe for now. The audience breathes a sigh of relief, and maybe even a giggle, that the protagonist has gotten away with it.

Close-call moments like these can be repeated. Each time the audience is pulled deeper and deeper into the protagonist’s situation. It becomes so real for us that we feel the urge to reach in. For some reason that kind of audience provocation is highly entertaining. It’s the same as jumping to your feet while watching your favorite football team get close to scoring.

In the gambling world there’s a psychological phenomenon called the Near Miss Effect. When a gambler sees three lemons lining up on a slot machine, but the third lemon spins away leaving only two, the gambler experiences a near miss. They believe they are now on a winning streak, and they try harder to win the next time. Psychologically they become addicted.

Just like the gambler gets addicted to their winning streak in the game of slots, you want your audience to become addicted to your story. Close-call moments get them hooked. How many do you need? You can write a couple of close-calls in Act 1, or several throughout your entire movie. The important thing is that eventually you do provide closure in a twist – the sleight of hand.

STEP 3 – FOOL THEM WITH A SLEIGHT OF HAND

Relieving the audience after a long and entertaining dance of close-calls is important. Somehow the danger should permanently subside by the end of your movie, otherwise the audience will feel like they’ve wasted their time.

But, Hitchcock said, “The bomb must never go off.” What he meant by that is that if you’ve led your audience to believe the bomb will go off, you must surprise them with a twist so that the bomb doesn’t. If the expected outcome actually happens, the viewer will feel cheated. They’ll never watch your movie again.

It’s exactly like a magician, convincing you that the coin is in his left hand and then opening it to reveal an empty hand. If the coin appears in the hand as expected – that’s no trick! In the same way, movie audiences want to be tricked after being held in suspense. If you surprise them with a clever sleight of hand in the end, they’ll love you for it.

~

Jeffrey Michael Bays is a writer, indie filmmaker, and YouTuber known as the “Hitchcock Whisperer.” His new book Suspense With a Camera guides screenwriters and filmmakers on a clear path through the sometimes confusing territory of suspense. Bays also created the award-winning Not From Space on XM Satellite Radio (2003).

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-11-28T22:44:35+00:00 November 28th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

The 7 Questions of Creativity

Jeff Leisawitz, the author of Not F*ing Around: The No Bullshit Guide for Getting Your Creative Dreams Off the Ground, recently interviewed the founder of LA Screenwriter, Angela Bourassa, about creativity as it relates to screenwriters. Check out the interview below. Hopefully it will answer some of your questions and inspire some creativity of your own.

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-10-05T14:44:34+00:00 October 5th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

3 Cautionary Steps When Killing Your Protagonist

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

WARNING: DUE TO THE NATURE OF THIS SUBJECT, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS

There are several films in theaters right now where the protagonist dies before the story concludes. This can be a risky move for a writer to execute. It can make for a powerful moment of catharsis in the audience but it can also leave them confused or unsatisfied. Traditional story wisdom has told us that killing off your main character can be upsetting to the audience, causing them not to like the story. However, as new storytelling mediums have arisen, such as video games and virtual reality experiences, where a viewer is the protagonist on a journey who may be killed off, having the central character die has become more common. If you feel that killing your protagonist is the right narrative move in the story you are telling, here are three cautionary steps to consider in order to make sure you don’t lose the people with the greatest investment in the story —  your audience.

Build a Support Team

Ensemble stories have used this practice for a long time when a central character is killed off. In the recently released Flatliners, Ellen Page’s character is presented as the central protagonist who initiates decisions that her cohorts follow. However, time is spent developing each supporting character as well. When Page’s character dies near the end of the second act, there has been enough narrative constructed around the support team to complete the mission that she began. The closing image insinuates that she is with them in spirit, though not in body. The audience only feels a sense of resolution because the supporting characters have completed their journeys and arcs as well.

Saving Private Ryan and The Royal Tannenbaums both build the journeys of their supporting characters in such a way that when the protagonist dies, the audience isn’t left unfulfilled.

Wait Until the End

Stories based around the journey of a single character are usually narratively over when that character dies. This can become stifling if your story is based on actual events and there are narrative beats that remain significant after the death of the protagonist. Moving the character’s death as close to the story’s conclusion as possible is often a wise move, leaving only the absolute necessities of resolution or reaction to the protagonist’s death to play out. Rogue One, American Beauty, and Braveheart all execute this well.

In Tom Cruise’s most recent film, American Made, the protagonist is killed a few moments before the credits roll, reflecting the actual events that occurred. The filmmakers are then quick to give us a few lines of text that explain what happened to each of the supporting characters. A video recording that the protagonist had been making throughout the film allows him to have the final words in resolving his own story.

Use the Death to Transform Other Characters

The death of a protagonist can be powerful because of the impact it has on others. Demonstrating a legacy through a supporting character can be tricky, but will resonate with the audience if we too feel as though we’ve been transformed along the way. In Titanic, Jack’s death has lasting impact on Rose, and thus on us, as the audience. In Pay It Forward, Trevor’s death has impact on his mother and his teacher initially, but ends up impacting the entire community. In Leaving Las Vegas, Ben’s death has a transformational impact on Sera, his romantic partner, in somewhat the way that Jack’s death functioned in Titanic.

However, this is only one way to use the death of a protagonist to have impact on another character. In Million Dollar Baby, Maggie’s death has tremendous impact on Frankie, even though she died by his hands and they were never romantic partners.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-10-04T12:46:33+00:00 October 4th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

Suspense: The Joy of Making Things Go Wrong

by Jeffrey Michael Bays (@BorgusFilm)

Incompetent characters and failed technology are common ways to playfully frustrate the audience in a suspenseful moment. The most suspenseful Hitchcock scenes are moments where no one helps, and the audience is reminded that they are also unable to help. We are forced to watch and wait – in suspense.

In episode five of HBO’s Room 104 (“The Internet”), director Doug Emmett does this beautifully. Anish (Karan Soni) is on an important business trip and has left his laptop with a career-saving Word file at home. In a desperate attempt to retrieve the file, he summons his mother (Poorna Jagannathan) by phone and steps her through the process. What seems like a good idea goes horribly wrong as his mother, not tech savvy, fumbles around and accidentally deletes the file.

When writing suspense, a key element is provoking the audience to reach in to save the hero from impending danger. The audience, of course, immediately realizes they can’t do anything to change the events on the flat movie screen. Somehow, though, this provocation is highly entertaining.

In my new book, Suspense With a Camera, I use the example of a man walking a tight rope. It’s not the rope that causes suspense, or even the prospect of falling. Only when the man wobbles and looks like he’s actually going to fall – that’s the moment of suspense. It triggers a rescue instinct within us. We want to jump in and catch him.

When his mother in Room 104 accidently deletes the text while copying it to the clipboard, Anish tries to carefully coach her into pasting it back in. She instead wants to just turn the computer off, which would erase it. It’s so suspenseful that we want to reach in and do it for her. “Just paste it back in!” we yell at the screen.

As helpless bystanders, viewers are forced to watch an inevitable crisis unfold, anticipating that the incompetent character will suddenly wise up. Following in Hitchcock’s footsteps, Emmett intentionally plays upon this, teasing the audience relentlessly. This tease simultaneously heightens our involvement in the story.

As if the situation in Room 104 isn’t suspenseful enough, the story is set in 1998, adding technological foibles to an already gripping situation. Anish’s mother is dealing with floppy disks and a complicated dial-up modem which she just can’t figure out. This primitive system of computing makes us giggle, along with her endearing pessimistic attitude toward Anish.

The episode creates a delightfully frustrating dance of unpredictable characters and flawed technology. If only we could step in and teach them how to use Dropbox! Room 104 delightfully frustrates. This frustration, which is simultaneously a fun sensation, is the key to heightening suspense.

~

Jeffrey Michael Bays is a writer, indie filmmaker, and YouTuber known as the “Hitchcock Whisperer.” His new book, Suspense With a Camera, guides screenwriters and filmmakers on a clear path through the sometimes confusing territory of suspense. Bays also created the award-winning Not From Space on XM Satellite Radio (2003).

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-10-03T13:46:34+00:00 October 3rd, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

Writer/Director Mateo Gil On His Latest Film, Realive

by Ashley Scott Meyers

In this week’s episode, I talk with Spanish screenwriter and director Mateo Gil about his new sci-fi drama, Realive. We also talk about this early career, writing scripts with Alejandro Amenabar, and how that lead him to a career as a writer/director.

You can listen to the audio portion of the podcast by clicking here or through iTunes by clicking here.

You can also read a transcript of this episode.

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-10-02T13:44:16+00:00 October 2nd, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

What a Great Logline Looks Like: September 2017 Edition

The September Logline Competition results are in! Check out these great examples of how to write a logline:

THE WINNER

Our winner is Callum Ramsay with his logline for PLAN C, a comedy:

Desperate to continue his extravagant lifestyle, a broke, washed-up crime writer enlists his crazy-yet-well-mannered stalker to help him recreate a bank robbery from his only best-selling book.”

This is easy to imagine as a big summer release. The idea is high concept, original, and clearly comedic. We’d go see this movie!

About Callum (callum_ramsay@yahoo.co.uk)

Callum Ramsay lives in Perth Australia where he works as a high-pressure water blaster on offshore oil and gas platforms. Callum is currently taking a professional script writing course with two assessments left before completion. He hopes to start writing scripts as a career in the near future.

THE FINALISTS

First, we have Morgan Lietz with his logline for SINS OF OUR MOTHERS, a dramedy:

“A few weeks before the biggest hit of his career, an introverted contract killer begrudgingly lets his estranged, dying mother move in, forcing him to keep his secrets–and bodies–buried.”

This one harks back to other classic comedies about killers, but it brings something new to the table. Another great, simple idea that’s easy to imagine on the big screen.

About Morgan (lietznm@gmail.com)

Morgan Lietz is a 22-year-old undergrad student from southern California with a deep passion for writing, partly due to the fact that his brain was unable to fully compute math and sciences post-twelfth grade. Morgan is still an amateur within the field of screenwriting, but he hopes that his continued practice of writing (combined with hundreds of hours of memorized film quotes circling around his brain) will one day help him succeed in creating a full feature film.

Next, we have Simon Chapman with his logline for REDUX, an hour sci-fi pilot:

“A disillusioned priest discovers an alien spacecraft capable of altering reality and uses it to impose his vision of paradise on the world, but the unintended consequences of his “fixes” give rise to a deadly government manhunt for this unwanted savior.

This feels fresh, timely, and full of possibility. This logline manages to pack in quite a bit of plot and character. It feels like a whole story world, which is perfect for TV.

About Simon (crayoncreative@hushmail.com)

Based in Sydney, Australia, Simon Christopher Chapman is a Communications post-graduate who worked for five years at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra before pursuing a career in acting and writing. He has written and produced several short films and is currently writing a children’s book and feature film screenplay.

The October Logline Competition is now open! We have wonderful prizes from Script Pipeline, Virtual Pitchfest, WeScreenplay, The Hollywood Pitching Bible, and Talentville. Get your loglines in for detailed feedback and a chance at great prizes.

Contest Logo 1 copy

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-09-30T12:44:00+00:00 September 30th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

Video: Underwritten Characters Anonymous

The nice folks over at onewordnocaps recently shared this video with us, and it’s pretty awesome.

If readers tell you that your side characters need fleshing out, you may be guilty of writing one of these people (we’ve all done it).

Check out the video and share it with your writer friends to help inspire some better developed characters.

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-09-28T13:45:41+00:00 September 28th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

4 Protagonists We Don’t See Enough

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

We have a difficult problem in the storytelling world. Writers are told to write what they know. However, most writers that have historically broken through to bring their stories to our screens are white males. As a result, we have had an overwhelming number of stories about them and their culture. Of course, the answer to this problem is to empower more writers who do not identify as white males into the market. Does this mean, however, that writers should only create lead characters that match their own gender identity and ethnicity? Few would see that as the path toward the best storytelling environment, either.

There have been numerous examples of films where a writer has co-opted someone else’s story for great profit and in turn, made a mess of that story, because the writer did not truly understand the culture or characters from that world. That said, there are a variety of ways to approach stories from outside of what we know effectively. Research and interviews from within the culture of the story is a good starting place. Working on the story with a co-writer from within that culture or gender identity is another strong approach. And of course, if you are a writer that resonates with the ethnicity or gender identity of your protagonist, let this serve as an encouragement for how badly we need to hear your stories. While there are a wide variety of roadblocks and pitfalls, there are a number of protagonists we don’t see enough of on screen. Here are four of them.

Professional People of Color

The TV landscape has improved in the past few years with shows like ABC’s Scandal and HBO’s Insecure, but the film world has been slower to embrace people of color in professional roles as protagonists. Athletes, entertainers, and crime figures have all been archetypes that minorities regularly are cast as, but rarely do we see minorities play doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Asian and Indian actors are even more rare in these roles than their African American colleagues and, of course, men far outnumber women in these positions as well. The world is full of men and women from every ethnicity serving in professional roles. More scripts would do well to reflect this, especially with their protagonists.

Parents and Grandparents

It’s no secret that Hollywood has a fascination with youthfulness. Stories about parenthood are often only used as B-stories that complicate the protagonist’s life, making what they really want to do more difficult or humorous. Being a parent is a key part of someone’s identity. Seeing mothers and fathers in new and fresh contexts remains a rarely tapped field of opportunity. Grandparents get even less on-screen time, usually being relegated to tired stereotypes. Even when older actors are centrally featured in a story, it is often to show how they too are youthful. Exceptions do exist and are welcome changes of pace. The upcoming Victoria and Abdul looks to be a promising example from Stephen Frears, the filmmaker that has made a career of telling stories of parents and grandparents, including The Queen and Philomena.

People of Faith

An overwhelming number of people in the world claim belief in a power higher than themselves. However, religious faith is often seen as a weakness in a character or the butt of a joke. While supporting characters in Grey’s Anatomy and The Leftovers have been vocal about their faith, protagonists who believe are often harder to find. Granted, the faith community has an entire genre where every protagonist is a person of faith. However, these films are usually poorly told stories that are only meant to exist in a small bubble of evangelical Christianity. A wide array of faiths exist in the world, yet on-screen protagonists seem to reflect so few of them.

Women Whose Sexuality or Relationship Status Does Not Define Them

The conversation around the sexualization of women in film and television has been going on for decades. Progress has been made, but the discussion has become more nuanced and complex as subjective ideas about how these issues are defined and executed fill the spectrum. Sexuality is an important part of who we are. Stories that explore this should be welcome. However, the paths that lead to exploitation and debasement are many. Even when sexuality is not explicitly in focus, a woman’s relationship to a man is often what defines her in many modern stories. The progress that we have experienced in this area can be somewhat attributed to female storytellers finally getting to tell their own stories. However, male storytellers should not overlook building wholeness into characters simply because women have pushed their way into the conversation. Moving stories forward into deeper realms of beauty and truth is the responsibility of everyone.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-08-12T01:49:36+00:00 August 9th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

What a Great Logline Looks Like: July 2017 Edition

The July Logline Competition results are in! Check out these great examples of how to write a logline:

THE WINNER

Our winner is Matthew Barker with his logline for ASSASSIN QUEEN, an action adventure:

Elizabeth I, warrior queen and deadly assassin, plots to murder her former lover — the new king of France — before he can send his undead army to England for her head.”

This story is bold, exciting, and a lot of fun. It’s easy to imagine this as a big summer blockbuster that attracts all sorts of audiences. And we love how compact this logline is — so clear and direct!

About Matthew (matthew@matthewbarker.com.au – matthewbarker.com.au  – Facebook – Twitter)

Matthew Barker is an Australian screenwriter with feature and television projects in development.  Since winning the Australian Writers’ Guild’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” national screenwriting competition for his feature script OUT OF NOWHERE, he has had other scripts place well in international competitions and programs, including being shortlisted the Australians in Film GatewayLA Screenplay Program 2015 for the script TROY TOWN.  That script was a quarter- and semi-finalist in The Blood List’s 2014 New Blood Screenwriting Contest, shortlisted in Stage32’s 2015 Happy Writers Screenplay Contest, and also shortlisted in the 2015 Spotlight Screenplay Contest.  Matthew is currently working on new scripts and pitching completed ones internationally.

THE FINALISTS

First, we have Malayeshia Hubbard with her logline for THE MOURNING AFTER, a dark comedy:

Two bored suburbanite neighbors in an ongoing affair scramble to come up with an alibi that won’t lead to divorce for one and jail time for the other following the accidental murder of the woman’s husband.

This is one of those “why didn’t I think of that” ideas. It’s so simple, and yet it feels original. The opportunities for great dark comedy are clear. Plus, you’ve got to love that title.

About Malayeshia (malayeshiah@gmail.com – @malayeshiaah)

Malayeshia Hubbard is a writer and college student from Charleston, South Carolina. Although she has a penchant for writing poetry, she likes the challenge that comes from writing full-length works of both screenplays and stage plays. Malayeshia credits the cast of the Twilight Saga for her latent interest in film at the ripe old age of 12.

Next, we have Jacob Appel with his logline for MISSING, an anthology series:

Recently released from prison after getting his murder conviction overturned, a struggling and highly aggressive LA detective finally lands a missing persons case: the lawyer who prosecuted him.

We love how simple and high concept this story is. It feels timely, and it’s easy to imagine a big audience for a show like this.

About Jacob (jacobappel26@aol.com)

Jacob Appel is a high school student who is passionate about writing for TV. He hopes to one day get a job as a TV writer on an existing show and eventually create his own show. Jacob’s favorite subjects are English and history, because he likes to improve his writing, and history always has some good stories.

The June Logline Competition is now open! We have wonderful prizes from Script Pipeline, Virtual Pitchfest, WeScreenplay, The Hollywood Pitching Bible, and Talentville. Get your loglines in for detailed feedback and a chance at great prizes.

Contest Logo 1 copy

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-08-01T18:44:47+00:00 July 31st, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |