“A screenplay is a simple story complexly told.”
Damn, I wish I knew who said that. A Google search turned up a lot of great quotes from famous writers, but not this one. The closest was:
I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.
Who knows? Maybe I said it.
It has certainly been on my mind lately as I read scripts – start to finish – and I can’t tell you what they were about. I’m supposedly a pitching expert – enough to be paid to teach it – and yet I couldn’t pitch some of these stories to you if my life depended on it. Coming up with a logline for them is nearly impossible.
What’s happening here?
The problem lies in the storytelling.
The Great American Novel
Some of the scripts I’m reading feel distinctly like novels. There’s a great span of time; description that reads like prose and gets into characters’ heads, telling us things that could never be conveyed on a screen. The story feels dense. There’s a lot of set up before actual plot kicks in. The plot veers from the through line and off into tangents. The point of view doesn’t stick with the main character, or even the ensemble, but shifts focus to a range of characters.
These don’t feel like cinematic storytelling.
Perhaps these ambitious writers are attempting to adapt their own novels into screenplays. This task is often compared to being caught in a bear trap; trying to chew off your own leg to escape. A difficult and painful process.
As a novelist, you make the rules. You might choose an omniscient narrator; stream of consciousness; first, second or third person narrative, or even alternating characters’ points of view. You, the author, get to decide. Then you have to stick with your choice.
Screenwriting is jam-packed with rules and conventions. Only Haiku is more restrictive. You might be able to bend the rules, especially as you grow more proficient and accomplished – but you had better understand and acknowledge them.
A novel affords depth and breadth. In truth, there’s not the room in a screenplay for the scope of a novel. Countless people complain, “The book was better than the movie.” Anyone who’s ever read the book first, and then seen the movie, knows everything they loved is not going to be on the screen.
Screenwriters who are the masters of adapting books to films don’t seek a literal retelling; substituting scene slugs for chapter headings. They use their storytelling skills to find the cinematic version of the story, even if it diverges from the original. They use the advantages of film to enhance the telling. Inevitably things will be left out – not only because of length, but to bring focus to the narrative and illuminate the essence of the story.
It’s been said that for years, no screenwriter could figure out how to successfully adapt the novel, FORREST GUMP into a film. A slew of A-Listers were offered, but none could devise a storytelling approach that worked. Ultimately, Eric Roth came up with the idea of focusing on the love interest, bringing a compelling, cinematic through line to the episodic story.
The writer, Eric Roth, departed substantially from the book. We flipped the two elements of the book, making the love story primary and the fantastic adventures secondary. Also, the book was cynical and colder than the movie. In the movie, Gump is a completely decent character, always true to his word. He has no agenda and no opinion about anything except Jenny, his mother and God.
Robert Zemeckis, director
A script is more akin to a short story or, at most, a novella, than a novel. The marvelously complex film, MEMENTO, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, is based on the short story, “Memento Mori,” by Jonathan Nolan. It’s a mere eight pages long. You can read it here.
Pay No Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain
When I can’t figure out the story – assuming the writer grasps the fundamentals of craft – often it’s because I’m being treated to a magic show instead of storytelling.
The writer is determined to capture the readers’ interest. They lack faith in the power of storytelling to do that, and play “the hand is quicker than the eye.” We’re bombarded by endless razzle-dazzle: Massive action sequences, scores of characters, complications upon complications, devices that feel like devices, a flood of flashbacks, fantasies, hidden agendas, red herrings, improbable reveals, and the truly sad, “here’s what really happened,” explanation at the end.
[caption id="attachment_233806" align="aligncenter" width="625"] "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."[/caption]
Hoping to keep us entertained, they distract us from the very story they set out to tell in the first place.
When I get to the “Fade Out,” and find that I don’t know what script was about. It’s sad, because oftentimes these screenplays are built upon a premise with potential. But the writer does not have confidence that this concept will be enough. Instead of exploring the idea thoroughly to exploit its full potential, they feel the need to toss on as much decoration as possible, obscuring the beauty of the concept. I call this “too much tinsel on your tree.” Click here to see if you are you suffering from that syndrome.
But it really happened!
Sometimes, the storytelling problem in scripts stems from the writer trying to tell a true story. Now believe me, there’s nothing I like more than a great true story. When I was President of Debra Hill’s company, we had fascinating projects about Clarence Darrow, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, each focusing on a specific, and often little known but emblematic moment of their lives. We started referring to ourselves as “The Dead Smart Guys Company.”
But the secret to the true story or the great bio-pic is not to tell all. You can’t encompass an entire life within a two-hour film. And even if you could, you absolutely shouldn’t. Yes, research is important. But what’s essential is to let go of the facts, while being faithful to the truth, and find the cinematic story that illuminates the individual and shows us a greater truth that can apply to our own lives.
A professor of mine once said, “I would never go see Loretta Lynn in concert, but I loved COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER.” Movies based on real people are not about merely showing us what someone has done (there isn’t a song until an hour into that film). They are about using storytelling to illuminate a fundamental truth about the person, show us who they are beyond their pubic image, and what makes them tick. They let us walk away with a meaningful message, whether or not we like country music. “Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, with determination and talent you can rise to great heights.”
Think about some of your favorite bio-pics: THE KING’S SPEECH, WALK THE LINE, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, DONNIE BRASCO, AMERICAN SNIPER. What makes these films successful is finding a core truth about the person and focusing on a pivotal time period in their lives to illuminate that. Their storytelling offers a distinct perspective on the hero’s life.
Sure, we need some backstory on how the character got to this point in time, but what is essential is telling the part of the story that encapsulates the most compelling element of the individual. That’s the cinematic truth. The one that resonates with an audience.
Often, aspiring writers are telling true stories from their own lives. Although these personal stories may be very meaningful to the writer, frequently we can’t find the larger meaning. They may feel compelled to share their story, or they might be following the old adage, “Write what you know.”
In my opinion, this is, at best, highly misleading advice, if not down right harmful. I believe you should write what you feel – what you know about the human condition based on your experiences, rather than your literal story. This is how strong storytelling reaches an audience – with a story that has a basis in real life, but is fictionalized to illuminate a larger, emotional truth.
From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.
The same rules apply as in the bio-pic. Don’t show us everything, just because it really happened. Pick and choose with care. Find the heart of your true story: The point in telling this particular story; the message that will speak to an audience – and focus on that. Discover the bigger picture – what’s it all really about – and let your storytelling spring from there. Everything should serve a purpose. If it doesn’t support the big picture, it doesn’t belong in your script.
Random Acts of Storytelling
It’s frustrating to get the end of a script and not know what it’s about. I’m not talking about the plot – although I've experience that plenty of times – I’m talking about the meaning. When you write a story and don’t know what it’s about at its heart – the thing you want to say with this story – the theme – then ultimately, it’s a series of scenes that don’t add up to something more. It’s not about anything. If you don’t know what your story is about, then we certainly won’t know either.
Even the raunchiest of comedies have a meaning lying beneath the surface. Will the audience come out of the theatre thinking, “Wow, ‘what you think you need is within you all along!’”? (The theme of THE WIZARD OF OZ, as well as a hugely popular R-rated comedy of the last decade – uh-uh, not telling, up to you to figure it out – and of countless other films.) Perhaps not, but there’s an added resonance, a depth to the story, an impact on the audience, whether we consciously think about the theme or are affected on a subconscious level.
Themes bring focus to stories. When you know what your story is truly about, every single decision you make supports that core idea.
When you don’t know your theme, your choices feel random because they are. Your script may be rich with detail, but if it doesn’t serve a purpose, it’s wasted effort and it weakens your work. In great storytelling, every significant detail is chosen for a reason and serves the premise.
Another painful symptom of stories without a theme is that they tend to simply drop off the page. You’re reading and then, suddenly, it’s over. I’ve been known to check for missing pages.
It’s not that these writers simply didn’t know how to craft an ending. More likely, they lack the storytelling skills to create a story that built inevitably to a meaningful conclusion. The arc of the hero – how he is changed by the events of the story to become a different person; to have new perspective or changed values from who he was and what he believed at the outset – illustrates the theme of the story, and is the key to finding the end point the entire screenplay builds toward.
If you don’t know the point of the story, then your storytelling won't lead to a satisfying conclusion to your hero’s journey.
As a reader, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of being in the hands of a confident writer, a storyteller who knows what their story is truly about at its heart. It’s a sure way to elevate the level of your writing.
Which brings me back to where I began.
A screenplay is a simple story complexly told. The complexity that we are drawn to as readers and audiences comes from the execution – the storytelling – not the concept:
A premise that promises more, delivers on that promise, and brings something fresh or clever to the genre.
A rootable hero, with an essential flaw related directly to the heart of the story, whose dimensions are revealed over time.
A structure where one scene pushes inevitably to the next, conflict escalates steadily and delivers effective twists.
Lean, yet vivid description, creating a sense of the environment, providing texture and detail that reveals character, as well as evokes tone and conveys emotional subtext.
Supporting characters are complex, compelling, and dimensional.
Dialogue is lean, authentic, and distinctive to each character.
The fundamental and universal theme is expressed within supporting characters, subplots, and the hero’s arc.
A satisfying ending.
Add those elements together and you may well have a script that demonstrates that you are a storyteller who possess Hollywood’s most sought-after trait – a writer with a voice.
That’s a writer we desperately want to know.