Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Action [Part 4]

May 13th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. In Chapter VII “Action! Camera! Grind!”, the writers take on one of the single most important aspects of movies since their inception: Action [P. 28-29]:

Action we repeat may be mental as well as physical. The sudden though silent realization of a girl that she has ruined her husband by extravagance is the highest form of action. It carries forward the plot many miles. This mental earthquake is far more stirring to sophisticated audiences than a realistic view of houses falling to pieces.

Interesting idea, the distinction between physical action and mental action. In the era of silent films when there was a style of acting — by today’s standards, some might consider it overacting — one can see what Loos and Emerson were getting at with this point.

Consider the 1912 film The New York Hat starring Mary Pickford, based on a scenario by Anita Loos:

Much of the action is communicated through looks and gestures, putting the ‘acting’ in action so to speak. Yet there is a valuable lesson for contemporary screenwriters: Action doesn’t have to be big to be action, it can be subtle. Consider the wonderful Carl and Ellie married life sequence from the Pixar movie Up:

The sequence works on so many levels, one of them being small actions by Carl and Ellie that contribute to the silent telling of this part of their story. One of them in particular — where they cross their heart, recalling the promise to go to Paradise Falls — becomes part of a much larger motif throughout the rest of the movie.

So when you think of action, don’t just think physical as in big action, also be aware of mental action, small bits of business characters can do to carry the moment, put the acting in action.

Next week, one last piece of advice on action from the book “How to Write Photoplays.”

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Action [Part 3]

May 6th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. In Chapter VII “Action! Camera! Grind!”, the writers take on one of the single most important aspects of movies since their inception: Action [P. 28]:

One method of heightening the suspense is by foreshadowing coming events without actually giving the secret away. Significant actions on the part of the sleek chap in the dress suit make the audience suspect his villainous intent. Little sign posts should dot the course of your plot keeping the mind of the onlooker interested in what is to come next.

So they knew about foreshadowing all the way back in 1920! It can be the actions of a character such as Travis Bickle and his famous “You looking at me” scene, foreshadowing the violence that is to come. Or a line of dialogue such as the oft-repeated side in Star Wars movies, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Another way of looking at it: Foreshadowing is a set-up to a later payoff.

Ironically the writer most often weaves foreshadowing into a story after the fact; that is the plot results in Action B, so the writer goes back in the story to establish Set-Up A.

When used effectively, foreshadowing can result in a satisfying experience for the script reader: The anticipation of an event to occur based on the setup, then the experience of it actually happening which resolves the tension of expectation.

So there you go: Another writing lesson from nine decades ago, courtesy of Anita Loos and John Emerson.

Next week, yet more on action from the book “How to Write Photoplays.”

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Action [Part 2]

April 29th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. In Chapter VII “Action! Camera! Grind!”, the writers take on one of the single most important aspects of movies since their inception: Action [P. 27]:

Never let anything superfluous creep into your plot. Never stop the progress of events to explore blind alleys. You may visualize a wonderful fire scene — perhaps you are a fireman by trade — but if it doesn’t bear on the story, don’t put it in. Perhaps you are tempted to deviate from the plot to develop a humorous or romantic situation. Don’t!

This is fundamental advice that many neophyte screenwriters need to read and heed [and yes, I intended that rhyme scheme]. You may conjure up what you think is a great scene. All sorts of pyrotechnics and bombast. But if it doesn’t advance the plot, you do not have a great scene, you have an unnecessary scene.

A screenplay is written in the present tense, but there is always an implied pull into the future, driving the narrative ahead. That is where your action should be, the actual emergence of the plot through what transpires in each scene. Grounded in the emotional realm of the story, what I call Themeline, those events have meaning. A so-called action scene that is not tied to the emotional life of the story or does not advance the plot is so much noise signifying nothing.

So if you are tempted to write such a scene, heed the memorable words of Loos & Emerson from 92 years ago: Don’t!

Next week, yet more on action from the book “How to Write Photoplays.”

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Action [Part 1]

April 22nd, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. In Chapter VII “Action! Camera! Grind!”, the writers take on one of the single most important aspects of movies since their inception: Action [P. 27]:

Action need not be physical. It may be mental. But never allow your audience to cool its heels for lack of action. Keep up the suspense, quicken it, and allow nothing to find its way into the story that may block or deaden its progress.

—-

The actors may walk around engaged in animated conversation, perhaps assault each other, but the only action which counts is that which carries the plot forward. The director must have it in his scene and you must have it in your story.

That, friends, is fundamental advice. Movies are primarily a visual medium. Action is visual. But from a writer’s perspective, it’s not just any action. It’s action that moves the plot forward. Loos and Emerson offer a great metaphor:

Imagine a small boy armed with an elastic slingshot about to plant a pebble in a pedestrian’s silk hat. He slowly draws back his elastic bands and finally lets fly. If his aim is true, the pebble will find its mark and everybody will be cognizant of the fact when the pedestrian recovers his voice.

The rubber band is the mind of your audience. The action progressing constantly through the play increases the strain — heightens the suspense as the critics say. The tenseness of the situation increases until you reach the climax when you let fly your shot. And in that climax, matters are definitely settled — either you hit the mark or you don’t — either the hero triumphs or sinks to eternal disgrace.

It is action tied directly to the Plotline, advancing it tense inch by tense inch until an inevitable Final Struggle and conclusion.

Think Syd Field or Robert McKee came up with their stuff out of whole cloth? No, these principles have been in existence since the very beginning of the filmmaking process.

There is a lot we can learn — and are learning — from this book published 92 years ago!

In fact, there is a whole other level of importance about action, we’ll spend next week digging into that from the book “How to Write Photoplays.”

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

Screenwriting Advice From The Past: “Star Sympathy”

April 15th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. In Chapter VI, they deal with the concept of “star sympathy” [P. 24]:

Many a Milton of the scenario game will remain unwarbled because he has neglected to place in his story the correct proportion of star sympathy.

“Star sympathy,” you say. “Of course I sympathize with the stars especially if they have to act in the stories I see every–etc etc.”

Right or wrong, the system of featuring a star in each picture is still the custom based upon the fact that in ninety per cent of all fiction written, the interest centers in one person. Therefore follow these rules:

The leading part of your story must be a strong characterization.

Do not put the audience in an antagonistic frame of mind towards the star part. Make the motives of the star logical. If your star is a vampire, the audience should understand the forces that led her to her career; if your star is a crook, make clear the facts that made a crook of her.

Many interesting and relevant ideas here. To be sure, with the emergence of CGI [Computer Generated Imagery] and ginormous action, action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy and superhero movies, actors are less and less the ‘stars’ of the movie as compared to all the special effects.

However there is still such a thing as star power. As long as the likes of Will Smith, Tom Cruise, and Leondardo DiCaprio can still open a movie, a screenwriter is wise to take that into consideration when developing a story’s characters.

What is intriguing in the Loos & Emerson book is that 92 years ago, there were set in place ideas that exist today:

* Sympathetic Protagonist: This is the studio default mode. Any time you try to write a character who is unlikeable, they will almost assuredly pressure you to make them more sympathetic.

* Single Protagonist: Whether the number is 90% or not, as suggested by Loos & Emerson, the fact is most movies do feature one lead character. Many reasons for this, not the least of which is it provides a clear, clean narrative perspective through which a script reader or movie viewer can experience the story.

* Credible World View: No matter what the function of the character — Protagonist, Nemesis, Mentor, Attractor, Trickster — they should have an internal logic to how they see the world and why they act the way they do.

But there’s one last big point that arises from Chapter VI’s summary paragraph:

Be sure your audience is stirred to real sympathy, throw that sympathy to the star part, and be sure that this star part which you have created actually suits some star or group of stars of the modern motion picture.

Over time movie stars develop a persona. That persona seeps into the consciousness of the star’s fans. Sometimes, even oftentimes, when a star attempts to break out of that persona, fans don’t like it. Do people really want to see Julia Roberts as an evil stepmother? Try to imagine Tom Hanks as an lecherous asshole. The line of least resistance is to write parts that play to their public persona. Studios are much more likely to greenlight star-driven movies if they believe the role the star plays will resonate with the type of thing the star’s fans want.

Next week: More Screenwriting Advice From The Past.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Theme

April 8th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. In Chapter V, here is how they define ‘theme’ [P. 21]:

Theme is the second great technical term which the playwrights must understand. It is the chief trick of the trade. A theme is a great universal truth such as “Honesty is the best policy” or “Don’t tell Masonic secrets to a woman.” It is not absolutely essential to a good story but it makes the writing of a plot many times easier by offering a definite objective.

This is the typical definition of theme as it relates to screenwriting and perhaps storytelling in general. In my view, this amounts to the first layer of a much more textured understanding of the concept, but more on that below.

The point they make about how “essential” a theme is to contribute to a “good story” is absolutely true. And probably how much “easier” it makes a story to write because if provides a “definite objective.” In general, theme can act as the substance that helps bind together all the disparate parts of a story into a whole, and provides a touchstone for the writer to help guide their vision throughout the writing process.

Loos & Emerson make an additional point of considerable value about theme on P. 23:

Last of all make your theme of as wide interest as possible a truth which every one has experienced and consequently can appreciate when viewing it in story form. Our first story for Douglas Fairbanks “His Picture in the Papers” was founded on the great American love of publicity; we knew that almost every one is thrilled at the prospect of seeing his or her name in print, while themes connected with aviation or foreign trade or a painter’s career would appeal to comparatively few people.

Found your story on an original truth of such universal interest that when your climax comes everybody in the audience from stenographer to bank president will say to himself, “That’s just the way I have felt myself.”

This speaks to two psychological dynamics that can occur between a reader and a story:

* Audience Identification: Where a script reader connects with key characters, thus experiencing some measure of what the characters go through in a vicarious but real way.

* Wish Fulfillment: Providing the script reader a specific context and set of circumstances which the reader would enjoy experiencing – again – in a vicarious but real way.

Both of these dynamics are of enormous value for a writer and a story’s themes can help on both fronts.

Notice I said “themes.” Whereas Loos & Emerson’s definition of ‘theme’ — essentially the idea of a story — may have worked for short-form films in the silent era, that understanding does not do well with feature-length movies. Playing upon one conceit for 2 hours can become repetitive and tiresome. In my view, a good story has multiple themes: there are sub-themes and alternate themes, each exploring and expanding a central theme, providing a richer, more diverse experience for the script reader. Moreover – again in my view – theme is not an intellectual exercise in movies, but rather an emotional one.

Gee, if only Scott was teaching a course on theme in the near future. Oh, wait. I am! A 2-week Screenwriting Master Class online course starting April 30. You can learn more about it here. I present a way of understanding theme that you can not find anywhere else and provide tools to enable you to actually benefit from using themes in your story-crafting process.

Next week: More Screenwriting Advice From The Past.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Situation

April 1st, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. In Chapter IV [The Photoplay Writer's Dictionary], here is an interesting observation [P. 19]:

Situation: A moment when the relationship of the characters to themselves and to the plot is charged with dramatic possibilities.

Even back in 1920, writers understood the importance of movie moments, situations “with dramatic possibilities.” In one way of looking at it, a screenplay is a series of moments [scenes] woven together into a narrative that creates a satisfying arc from beginning to end. We may tend to get caught up in the latter part of the writing, the weaving together of the moments, as we should as part of the story-crafting process. But we must also do due diligence when brainstorming, selecting, and constructing each moment.

Interesting to note that the above definition of “situation” indicates the two worlds of the screenplay universe:

External World: Relationship of the characters to the plot, how they participate and influence the events that occur in the story [what I call Plotline].

Internal World: Relationship of the characters to themselves, the psychological interplay of characters to each other as well as each character’s own existential and behavioral arc [what I call Themeline].

That is why I push the point to the writers with whom I work: In a scene, something must happen [Plotline]. And something else must happen [Themeline]. Much of the “dramatic possibilities” of a movie moment / scene derives from the multiple layers of what can transpire in both realms of the story universe.

On another matter, it is interesting to see how Loos & Emerson describe the role of the key players in making a movie:

Cameraman: The expert operator of a motion picture camera.

Cast: Actors taking important parts in the photoplay.

Director: The man who supervises the acting of scenes construction of scenery and all important details of production.

Producer: The man who finances and assumes full responsibility for production of the picture.

Studio: The producing plant where the scenes are enacted and photographed.

Notice the relative degrees of importance. The Director is described as someone who “supervises” the production of the movie. The Studio is merely the “producing plant.” The real power would seem to lie with the Producer who not only finances the film but also “assumes full responsibility” for the picture’s production.

The Director as “supervisor” is a long way from the auteur theory and given the chain of command, a far cry from deserving anything remotely resembling A Film By status.

Of course, the underlying assumption of Loos & Emerson’s book is that the real power in the filmmaking process is the writer. With the number of movies being produced in the 20s, someone had to create the content. That was the writer.

Next week: More screenwriting advice from the past.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Crisis and Conflict

March 25th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. Here is some advice from the book [P. 11]:

Crisis and conflict are the great essentials of a dramatic story. Something must happen and happen speedily. There must be conflict between opposing elements — as Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf not necessarily physical conflict since quite as thrilling a plot would have been obtained had the wolf in the guise of a Wall Street magnate threatened Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother with financial ruin. There must be crisis matters — must come to a head and not drag on in an eternity of suspense as in some two volume novels. There must be the big scene where matters are settled definitely once and for all. Either virtue triumphs in the happy ending or the hero meets his tragic Destiny. But the plot must have as definite an ending as it had a beginning.

This excerpt comes from Chapter III: Getting the Story Across and those of you who may have studied screenwriting, play-writing or novel-writing in an academic setting may very well recognize the emphasis on these two C’s: Crisis. Conflict. Apparently these concepts as an essential part of drama have been foundational to writing for a long time, as witnessed by this reference nearly a century ago.

Loos and Emerson zero in on one key to conflict: Opposing elements. The easiest and perhaps most universal version of this is represented by two character types: Protagonist and Antagonist [I prefer Nemesis]. If you give these characters one goal, you create immediate conflict.

But what of crisis? Loos and Emerson seem to focus their attention on what I call the Final Struggle, that Plotline point at the end of Act Three where the major issues at play in the story get resolved ["big scene where matters are settled definitely once and for all"]. But if you think about it, a good story will have the crisis dynamic present throughout, either rising up in iterations that point toward the Final Struggle or the ‘shadow’ of the Final Struggle looming over the characters in ways big and small.

In any event, Crisis and Conflict are excellent lenses through which to assess every act, every sequence, every scene to see if they are present. If they are, chances are you have some compelling narrative content at work. If they aren’t, you would be wise to rethink your approach.

Don’t force in a Crisis or slap on Conflict. That is the worst sort of top-down writing. Rather go into the story, specifically your characters, and find the dynamics within them that can naturally evolve into Conflict and Crisis.

Next week: More screenwriting advice from the past.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.