Sunday, December 29, 2013

Outlines and Scriptments – "You Mean There's More?"

This is a continuation of the earlier discussion on treatments, beat sheets, and synopses.

An outline focuses on the screenplay structure minimizing on storytelling flourishes.  It’s like using 3 X 5 cards put to paper.  Generally more complete than the treatment, subplots fit better into outlines with few missing links.  The outline is more matter-of-fact, detailed, and more like the skeleton of the story than the muscular outer body.

As an outline gives the writer a blow-by-blow look at his screenplay, it can also be used as a diagnostic tool. 

Below is a sample outline that I use.  I do not care if you copy it, change it, or use it.  Simply, this format works for me.  You may want to use literal 3x5 cards.  Or, you might want to use commercially available software.  Whatever works best for you.  Experiment.

This table uses a master scene sequence.  I will write more about that issue later.  You can write the outline out in a scene by scene pattern as well.  Bulletization and page count is useful, but optional.










A technique that I have tried which results in some interesting changes is to write all the scenes down on 3x5 cards then randomly shuffle the cards.  Try re-laying out your story based on the random pattern that results from the shuffle.  Change is good.

A scriptment is a writing device that borrows characteristics from both a regular screenplay and a film treatment.  The scriptments that I have read seem more an embellishment rather than a working tool.  However, scriptments have served writers such as James Cameron handily.  Their structure should be understood.

While the main text body of the scriptment is similar to a treatment, the major differences are that major sequences receive slug lines and it is commonly more fully developed including a great deal of dialogue.  In a scriptment, major scenes and minor scenes (shots) are separated as paragraphs or sentences and also include an occasional explanatory note.  Dialog scenes are more fully developed with single words or brief phrases of dialogue included within the description and lengthier exchanges are formatted exactly as they would be in a regular screenplay.

A scriptment is likely to be written at a higher level of detail (scene by scene) rather than at a lower level of detail (master scene by master scene) as one would find in a treatement.  Indeed, some scriptments are written almost shot by shot.  A scriptment can have a title page and begin with FADE IN: top left and conclude with a centered THE END.  It is written single spaced with an empty space between paragraphs and other elements and the pages are numbered in the upper right corner, just as in a screenplay.

9.  Conscientiousness
Conscientiousness is the act of being both painstaking and careful.  Conscientiousness includes such elements as self-discipline, carefulness, thoroughness, organization, deliberation, and need for achievement.  It is an aspect of what has traditionally been called character.  Conscientious individuals are generally hard working and reliable.

What has that got to do with screenwriting, you ask?

For you to be a successful screenwriter, or successful at anything, you must have conscientiousness.  As a writer, you must write every day.  You have to put your butt in a chair and produce.  Your production must be to standard.

Remember, you are running a business.  Develop some business acumen about dealing with where your cash is coming from and going to.  Develop a sense of the value of your time.  If your agent calls and sets up a meeting – go.  Be on time.  Be prepared.  Be practiced.  Dress neatly.

In regards to character, there is an old Yiddish expression, “Er ist ein Mensch.”  He is a man.  Not in the sense of sexual differentiation, but in the sense that that person actually acts like a person.  When you meet and greet, be authentic.  Do not develop a sense of entitlement.  Remember your “please’s” and thank you’s.”  People appreciate and remember the littlest touches of kindness.

For you to be successful as a writer, you must not only write often and well but you must have the character that other people want to deal with.

Now, don’t be so narrowly focused you lose sight of what is important.  Family is important.  Friendship is important (I do not mean Facebook friends).  Take time out for yourself and for those you care about.  Be hard working.  Be reliable.  Be a ‘mensch.’

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, December 22, 2013

Treatments, Beat Sheets, and Synopseseseses – “Do I gotta?”

This week’s discussion is the development and writing of those dreaded documents that always accompany your screenplay.  The documents are the beat sheet, synopsis, and treatment.  And yes, you have to write these documents yourself.

There is a lot of confusion and discussion in the screenwriting world about the words ‘synopsis,’ ‘beat sheet,’ and ‘treatment.’  Truthfully, there really is no single standard for any of these documents.  So, for discussion purposes let’s start with standard definitions.

A synopsis is a one to two page plot summary written in the present tense that includes the main action and the major characters and what they do that affects the action.  Only subplots that are integral to the main plot are included.  Characters’ names are written in CAPS the first time they appear and title case after that.  The essential tone and mood of the genre and the writer’s style is communicated in the synopsis.

Beat Sheet
A beat sheet is a point by point list of the actions of the story.  It appears as a short breakdown of the important moments in your script – the beats.  Essentially a writer’s outline, the beat sheet is your first really big step in organizing and shaping your material into a more detailed story.  For convenience, you could use scene numbers.  Numbering or bulleting is not a requirement, but lots of people do it that way.  If nothing else, it indicates sequence.  There are no particular rules.  However, description and action are minimized.  A beat sheet is not the place to wring out every ounce of drama or comedy inherent to a scene.  Beat sheets are a good diagnostic tool for writers.

Here’s an example of a start for a beat sheet that I put together for a class.  No, you may not copy it.  Yes, it is copyrighted for what that is worth.


  •  Start on the sun scarred steppes of Russia.  Russian Army COLONEL Stefan Urievich “URI” Yuvchenko escapes from the infamous KOLCHAK MILITARY PRISON.  He seeks revenge for his false imprisonment and the return of money stolen from him by GENERAL Andre Stefanovich Adryan.
  •  Burned – out and suicidal after the death of his full – blooded Apache Indian wife MAGGY, HALL reluctantly guards RUSSIAN VICE PRESIDENT ADRYAN.
  •  Under pressure from LA City Councilman PALMERSTON, HALL decides to let Adryan see the “seedier” side of LA and takes them to the strip club GARDEN OF DELIGHT.
  •  While at the club, masked RUSSIAN SPETZNAZ assassins attack.  Hall and Gomez exchange gunfire with the killers.  Gomez is killed in a grenade blast.
  •  Emerging from the chaos of the shoot – out, Hall is blamed for the killings and accused of working with the Russian MAFIA.  He is suspended from the L.A.P.D. pending an investigation.
  •  Knowing that he has been set – up somehow, Hall kidnaps Adryan’s lover, the dancer Alexandria,
  •  He takes her to his wife’s grave.  He tells her of the love he had for his wife and his dedication to he police force. 
  •  A bullet ZINGS across the gravestones.  Racing through the cemetery, they are shot at by fleeting “ghosts” of the Spetznaz killers.
  • They go to the high desert CHONDAY APACHE INDIAN RESERVATION.  He can be protected there.
  •  Fearing her own preconceptions about Indians, Alexandria does not want to an Indian reservation.  She wants “real” police protection.
  • While arguing, the Russians ATTACK.  Escaping out the back of the house, Hall finds a car and hot wires it.
  • At the reservation, they are under the protection of the tribe.
  • In the final confrontation, Hall and Alexandria are tracked across the barren desert by the Spetznaz.
  • The Spetnaz are tracked by the Indian BRAVES.  Using all the skills of their ancient ancestors, the Indian trackers make their own war against the Russian “white eyes.”
  • Finally, on a desert mesa Hall and Blue face their last confrontation.  Swinging his last blow, Hall falls off the cliff while Blue falls to his death.  In one reach, Alexandria saves Hall.

A treatment is a prose narrative that tells the story emotionally.  Your goal is to write a document that is a tight, easily readable re-telling of the story in three to eight pages.  While you may have to write something longer than eight pages, try to keep the effort pithy.  You should use active verbs.  This document is not an academic exercise.  While complete scenes are not normally written out, you can write in a little dialog for effect.

In effect, what you are writing is a mini-movie.  You need to write a document where you get a feel for the main character(s), the overall flow of the story, and include pieces of dialogue.  The treatment can be the writer’s best selling device after a good synopsis.  Keep in mind that treatments have a beginning, middle and end.  Treatments also help the writer weave in your subplots and minor characters with grace and style.

All these documents have value to the writer as writing tools.  Helping you focus on the key elements of your story, the synopsis, beat sheet, and treatment serve as a writer’s trail through that dark night of writing.  The skills of writing these documents come with practice and doing.  It’s going to take time.  So, do not get angry at yourself for becoming stuck.  They will also keep you from forgetting all the minor, but important scenes, without which parts of your story may threaten to become incoherent or totally mystifying.

Writing is an act of faith.  You are putting your faith in your ability to create and imagine.  Just as your characters face increasingly difficult obstacles, you must continually strive to create better and better stories.  Each step of this writing process is progressively more detailed and difficult.  On the other hand, at each step, you’re working with more material, and the world of your story and characters are becoming more real to you.  So once again, like the hero of your story, you – the writer – are growing stronger, enough so, that you will be able to succeed at each stage. 

8.  Solid Grounding

You know I searched throughout the interwebnettube thing, I could not find a definition of solid grounding.  A lot of people write about how one could get a “sold grounding” in such and so without defining what that would be.  So be it.

As a writer, you need a solid grounding in your skills and in your abilities to proceed as a writer.  Therefore, I have come up with some “grounding” attributes.  If these attributes sound a trifle militaristic, it is because I took them off of a United States Marine Corps site.  However, these are valid attributes that can help in your success as a writer in Hollywood.

Mission First – Remember why you are writing.  What you are doing is not art.  Ultimately, there may be ‘art’ in the result but the writer writes.  You are writing because you love writing and you need to pay the mortgage, buy diapers, and put food on the table.

Method Training and active leadership are our keys to success – You need to take charge of your own career.  There are a lot of folks out there selling their various ‘confidence’ methods, but ultimately you are responsible.  So, pack the gear and saddle up.

Have good self-realization - Understand your abilities and risks.  Don’t gamble on something turning out right because that’s what you want.

Rigor is your deliberate training and preparation – You train as you work.  You work as you train.  Simply – the more you write, the more you can write.  Attending classes and seminars, joining writing groups, and replying to agents wanting scripts are excellent ways to expand you experience and knowledge base, but you must write everyday to be successful.

Honesty and forthrightness - Yes, there are those in this industry who are dishonest and dishonorable but you should be above that.  Do what is right, not what is easy.

Be bold and aggressive - However, avoid the stalking behavior.

Be prepared physically, emotionally and intellectually for this fight - Yes, it is a struggle.  Write everyday.

Endstate – As a screenwriter, besides the paycheck from the studio what is your end state?  You have to decide that for yourself.  However, never forget that you are writing to make a living.  If that talent takes you to becoming a producer or director rather than a writer then so be it.  It’s your life.  Just remember the old Airborne response:  “How far?”  “All the way, sir.”

Remember Avrech's rule: All great movies are love stories

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, December 8, 2013

Secondary Characters - The Art of the Secondary Character – How Robert Newton convinced the world that pirates say ‘Arrgh.’

One of the major issues I have encountered in reading screenplays from new writers, and sometimes not so new writers, is their inability to flesh out secondary characters.  Actors like to, well – act.  It is only in your words that the actor can reflect their performance.  Give secondary characters something to do.  Or, believe me they will find something to do.

A noted character actor from the 1930s and 1940s had a habit of doing something with his hands during scenes where it was required that he stand and listen to the main characters do their lines.  His minor action of just playing with a pocket watch made all the viewers zero in on his character regardless of what the main characters were saying.  Yes, he was scene stealing.  However, his actions bespeak of a professional who was trying to make the scene interesting regardless of his lack of lines.

What you as a writer need to do is replicate this kind of action in your writing.  I am not suggesting that you make every character ‘live,’ but you need to give them a sense of ‘being’ on the page.  Many inexperienced screenwriters; I know because I did this, make characters such as COP 1 and COP 2 and give them bland lines to say.  Better yet, the infamous WAITER and his “Can I take your order?” line.  If a minor or secondary does not have anything to say that moves the story ahead, do not give them anything to say.  If you give them something to say, make it meaningful within the context of the story and make the dialog move the story forward.

Richard Lester in his brilliantly directed Musketeer series movies used secondary characters in a sneaky way to add context to the ongoing main character movement.  Many of the secondary characters have little asides they would say that added texture to would have been otherwise an obligatory scene of actors racing away on horses.

So, I am giving you three techniques by which you can make your secondary characters more interesting.

Technique 1: Private Drama
When we meet a minor character, immediately introduce us to their private drama(s).  Doing this makes a character seem more real, for we get a feeling that person has a past, ongoing dramas, and a network of relationships.

Technique 2:  No Bland or Cliché Dialogue
No cliché secondary character dialogue.  Avoid the WAITRESS/WAITER “Can I take your order?” line.  If you want the secondary character to interact with your main character, make the interaction meaningful and move the story forward.

Technique 3:  No Cliché Characters
If a cliché character is one who has a combination of familiar traits, to make a character non-cliché, make sure that he or she has, at his or her core, a combination of traits that we are not used to seeing in combination.

Please note you do not need to make each and every minor character have major lines, but some sort of interaction would be good.  Real interactions between characters add texture and depth to a story.

Robert Newton, in his very short but talented life, was a character actor who played mainly secondary but memorable roles.  Using his own West County, England accent, he performed the role of Long John Silver and taught the world that pirates say, “Arrgh, matey.”  Sometimes playing the lead, he played villains, ruffians, detectives, and had comedic roles.  He died in 1956 in Beverly Hills, CA.

7.  Speaking Ability

In this discussion about speaking ability, I am not talking about public speaking, although you may be called upon to talk to large groups of people, nor am I writing about sales, although you are in effect trying to sell something.  What I am writing about is ability to speak in a structured, deliberate manner that informs, influences, or entertains the agent, producer, whomever you are trying to get to buy your script.  Perhaps this manner is better described as eloquence.  All of us writers are called upon to pitch our ideas to various members of the motion picture and TV industries.  What I suppose each of these classes is missing is an explanation of not only what to say but how to say it.

Eloquence is fluent, forcible, elegant, and persuasive speaking.  It is primarily the power of expressing strong emotions in striking and appropriate language, producing conviction or persuasion.  Remember, your agent gets you the meeting.  You do the pitching.  Therefore, it would behoove the writer to develop a sense of eloquence to present your ideas gracefully, combining thought and reason in a powerful way, so as to persuade these folks to your point of view.  At the very core of your presentation is the use of graceful style, clear concise grammar and usage, insertion of rational and emotional arguments to be able to win over the agents, producers, et al.

A suggestion for writers interested in pitching – Learn, practice, and develop your skills in:

·         Oratory – speaking clearly and pronouncing your words
·         Voice register – Not speaking too loudly or too softly
·         Controlled use of gestures
·         Control of the voice - inflection
·         Vocabulary and word choice
·         Using humor – Don’t be a comedian, but lose the seriousness.
·         Developing a relationship with your audience – This is by far the hardest part, but worthwhile (I will have more on this area in a future blog.)

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.