Sunday, October 27, 2013

Genre – What Does It Feel Like, Look Like, Taste Like

I have always had a problem with what makes an individual genre unique.  During a class on horror writing at Screenwriters Expo several years ago, I asked the instructor what makes horror well, horrible.  Her reply was that she had been showing examples of horror films.  Cute, but using examples solely to show the answer are not the answer.

So, what is the answer to the question, “What does genre feel like, look like, taste like?”  Stuart Voytila in his excellent article in The Writer’s Store “Genre Blending: The Romance of Adventure, and the Adventure of Romance (” writes that, “As a simple definition genres are recognizable classifications of stories that are characterized by pre-established conventions.  These conventions can include narrative dynamics, image systems, character archetypes, goals and obstacles, premise and theme, and the story’s arena and location.”  So, what does all this very academic rhetoric mean to the writer person sitting at his or her computer pounding out a story?

Shh, and I will tell you.

The conventions are patterns that have been well-established over hundreds if not thousands of years of storytelling in Western culture.  Each genre has its own particular conventions.  Knowing the conventions of your target genre can help you form your story’s structure, and determine your cast of characters, and the roles they play.

Understanding genre conventions allows you, the writer, to target your story’s audience.  People who attend movies have certain expectations when they watch a thriller, a romantic comedy or a horror film.  You need to not only meet your audiences’ expectation but exceed them.  As you become experienced in writing in your familiar genre, you can start to mix the genres and enlarge your palette.

The following are explanations of some of the major genres.  Your mileage may differ.

The Adventure Genre – The story’s central struggle is for the hero to tackle the adventure and remains focused on the primary physical goal.  Despite secondary goals and journeys that complicate the adventure, the hero remains dead-set on the larger physical goal at hand and in the end the hero alone triumphs.

The Romance Genre – The story’s central struggle is between two people where love is forbidden whether due to class, culture, religion, or social conventions.  The lovers live in a world in crisis and are torn between two goals: their love and the higher cause (patriotic, professional, family obligation, or other) where the question is whether the lovers will choose love or the higher cause.

Detective Story/Courtroom Drama – The story’s central struggle is to find out what really happened and thus to expose the truth.

Epic/Myth – The story’s central struggle plays out in the midst of a clash of great forces or in the sweep of great historical change.

Fantasy/Science Fiction – The story’s central struggle plays out in two worlds - the "real" world and an imaginary world or a world formed from technology and tools of a scientifically imaginable world.

Gangster - Commonly blended with film noir, this genre is where the story’s central struggle is between a criminal and society.

Social Drama - : The story’s central struggle is between the hero and a problem or injustice in society where the hero has a personal stake in the outcome of the struggle.

Have I answered the original question of-“ What does genre feel like, look like, taste like?”  Partly.  You need to answer the rest.  What does genre feel like, look like, taste like to you?  Remember, you as a writer are writing for the mass market.  Therefore, come to an understanding about genre and apply that to your stories.  However, I think you should avoid the horror/gangster/comedy sub-genre for right now.  Get a few more scripts under your belt.  Then, maybe.

3.  Knowledge

In screenwriting, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Meaning, a small amount of knowledge can cause writer folk to think they are more expert than they are and consequently make unwise choices.  Learning about writing in general and screenwriting in particular is an on-going process that requires maintenance and is never complete.  Writers continually struggle against ignorance; while many achieve progress, there is always more to learn.

As writers, we need to experience life.  No, I do not mean a drug and debauchery filled weekend in Vegas.  You need to get out from your echo chamber and engage life.  Have a hobby.  Learn carpentry, bird watching, something.  Spend a couple of years in the Peace Corps.  Join the military for a few years.  Get a life.

As you write more, you can write more.  But sheer writing is only half the equation.  You need to get better at it.  How do you get better at writing?  You learn from others.  You get involved in screenwriting groups.  You take classes at the local university.  You go to various screenwriting events.  You get paid advice from experts.  And, yes you do need to separate the wheat from the chaff.  However, you cannot do this if you do not get out there and participate beyond your own navel.

Knowledge is the end product of learning-a concrete thing you cannot buy off the shelf.  Knowledge comes from assimilating information from various sources whether you agree or no. 

Before anyone starts quoting-

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) - An Essay on Criticism.  “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”

Why are you reading this?  Go write!

John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ideas – From the transient back brain to the rational front brain

Concept testing is the last of the last three methods I want to mention.  In short, concept testing is whereby you test out your concept statements by gauging people’s reactions. Just remember that almost every good concept starts off with some initial skepticism so do not let that stop you; but, be malleable enough to change you idea as you mention it to your friends, your relatives, even the people in line at Starbucks.  Though the concept may be obvious to you, to the listener your idea is filtered through their own beliefs, experiences and emotions.  Also, as most movie producers are not the brightest individuals in the world making your idea concise and understandable by anyone you meet will help.  Think about ideas like this-they have to meet the Uncle George Rule.  That is, if Uncle George from Palestine (that is pronounced Pal – is – steen), Indiana can understand the story idea than most producers, or agents, or directors, will also.

Just do not get caught up in a cycle of constantly mutating or continually defending your idea.  Take people’s suggestions and move on.  If you like the suggestion, keep it.  If you do not like the suggestion, thank the person and move on.  Debating the issue is not worth the time or effort.

There are three actions you should take about developing ideas:

  • Develop Your Own Style
  • Keep the Idea Clear and Concise
  • Have Emphasis and Associations

There is one more thing about idea development that you, as a writer, need to remember.  The idea is not a macguffin.  What is a macguffin?  A macguffin (sometimes written mcguffin) is "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction.”  The specific nature of the macguffin is not important to the plot.  The macguffin can be ambiguous, completely undefined, generic, or left open to interpretation.

A macguffin is common in films, particularly science fiction films.  The macguffin can be the zombie, or the spaceship, or the raygun, or the cross-eyed, double-tailed watchamacallit.  Ideas, and by derivation plots, are about people, not things.  To have a plot that has a spaceship doing this and doing that makes your entire story about the macguffin, not the people.  People hearing your idea do not want to hear about how you move the interrossitor control 18 degrees to the left.  They want to hear about what people emotionally do.

The bottom line here is always, always, always write your ideas about people and what they do with each other not how they respond to your clever tool that you thought moves the story along.  Bogie did not care about whether the Maltese Falcon was a statue or a blue-footed boobie.  He was trying to find out who killed his partner and set him up.  CLOVERFIELD was not about the monster, the movie was about the people and their struggles.

Below are some sample ideas:

Earth is invaded and nearly destroyed by a super-powerful alien force, but saved by a simple man and his love for his children.

A circus clown has a mid-life crisis and decides to become a mailman.

A six-year-old American boy is separated from his parents and finds himself lost in post-war Japan.

An autistic gardener is put out on the street when his boss dies, but manages to survive by making friends and impressing people with his “wisdom”.

A 20-year-old suicidal boy falls in love with an 80-year-old woman who loves life.

A group of rag-tag losers with various incredible kung fu abilities come together to form a ludicrous-but-incredible soccer team.

A Danish prince is very unhappy when his mother decides to marry the brother of her murdered husband, especially since uncle is the guy who did the murdering.

A beautiful princess runs away and hides with a bunch of extra-short guys when her jealous stepmother tries to kill her.

A brave toaster tries to save his fellow appliances from being destroyed when somebody else takes over the store.

Attribute – Love of Reading

Good writers all love to read.  They read voraciously, anything they could get their hands on: adventure stories, science fiction, mysteries, classics, comic books.  Really good writers have vast libraries, full collections from Shakespeare volumes to back issues of "Swamp Thing."  Good writers can't pass a bookstore without going inside.  Good screenwriters read screenplays.  Lot’s of screenplays.

Why are you reading this?  Go write!

John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Ideas – Catch ‘em before they’re gone

Ideas are the port where this voyage starts.  Buy your ticket.  Get on board.  We’re sailing into uncharted waters.

Whenever I have taught screenwriting, one of the most often asked questions is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  Tell you the truth, I buy mine 6 for $10.00 out of a place in Schenectady, New York.  No, I am not going to tell you where.

Seriously, ideas are sources by which we as writers move from the state of nature, or reality, to a state of unreality, or fiction.  The thing that changes that state is our imagination.  Our imagination uses whatever means it has at its disposal to change that state; experiences, dreams, desires, and so forth.  In the imagination is where the magic takes place.

While magic is the art and craft of creating illusions of seemingly impossible or supernatural feats by using purely natural means, screenwriting is the art and craft of writing scripts for movies, television, or video games using natural means.  In other words, instead of using cards or other techniques, the screenwriter uses the typewriter, or computer if you like, to create illusions.

Like magic, screenwriting uses a three act structure.  In the case of magic, the three acts are called the pledge, the turn, and the prestige.  In screenwriting, these three acts are called the set-up, the mid-point, and the climax.  Like a good magician is always thinking about how a new act fits into his structure, we as writers need to be thinking of how our idea fits into the three act structure

Because of the self-contained nature of movies, ideas for movies or television should have the following attributes:  they should be short; they should be high concept; and they should be intriguing.  You are asking yourself how short is short?  Intriguing, how?  And, what is high concept?  The answers to these questions are that high concept is the ability to present a simple and captivating story idea in one sentence.  The bottom line here is that if you ever have an opportunity to pitch your idea you may get all of two minutes.  The ability to encapsulate story concepts into a single pithy sentence comes with practice.

I hear you saying, “That’s dishonest.  MOBY DICK is a complex story of man’s conflict with man and nature.  How can you reduce it to one line?”  Easy.  A tortured 19th Century Ship’s Captain seeks the Great White Whale that destroyed his body and took his ship.  Short.  Intriguing.  High Concept.  In addition, there is an implied three act structure.

Cute, but how do I go from the ephemeral to the physical?  In other words, what are some processes one might use that take from an idle concept to a one-line idea on paper?  There are three processes that might help:

Mind mapping
Concept Testing

Mind mapping

Mind mapping is the process where one takes the various transient ideas and puts them around a central theme.  Where do you get the central theme?  You’re the writer.  Make it up.  If it does not work, try another.  You gotta start someplace.  The mind map serves two purposes.  First, it allows you to move quickly around the story accepting or disregarding elements as you plug them in.  Second, the mind map allows you then to see the story and come up with the simple, intriguing, high concept description.

In the example shown below, I picked the theme of revenge.  Then, I assigned characters, characteristics, plot, and motivations.  You can make it as complex or as simple as you want.  Again, the purpose here is not to outline the whole story; which you could do if you wished, but develop the description.  Remember this – writing story descriptions, characterizations, act descriptions, how act breaks work, etc. are all great exercises but doing all those things is not writing.  Get the idea on paper and start writing.

Thanks to Heather Hale


Another idea method is the actor method.  Pick an actor - John Wayne (Ahh, he was an actor from about 1929 to 1977.  Made a lot of movies.  THE QUIET MAN.  DONOVAN’S REEF.  THE SEARCHERS.  Okay then, Johnny Depp).  What would be your dream fantasy for Johnny Depp?  I mean here what would you write in a story about Depp.  Here are four ways of looking at the actor method of idea development.

Dream fantasy.  What would you have them say in the role you have created?

Low hanging fruit.  What other actors you have seen and admired.  What would they say or act like in your vision.

Knowledge of stars.  You have to have a good working knowledge of an actor’s acting skills-not just her bra size.

Current actors.  While the actor may no longer be alive, you have to write the story for contemporary readers.

Writer’s Attribute - Objectivity

Good writers know the quality of their writing relative to industry standards.  They know when they've come up with a clever plot twist, a good character entrance, an effective opening sequence.  They can tell good work regardless of whether or not they're the ones who came up with that work.  Go buy a copy of a good script, put it side by side with yours, and see how your script compares?

Why are you reading this?  Go write!

John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.