Concept = Hook

July 14th, 2014 by

Whatever degree of importance you attribute to your script’s story concept… it’s probably not enough. Here’s how I begin Lecture 1 of my Core II: Concept class:

The foundation of any movie is the screenplay. The foundation of any screenplay is the concept. Therefore it stands to reason which story concept you develop and write as a script is a critical choice. And that is precisely why I created the second part of the Core curriculum – to understand how movie industry insiders think, provide you with proven methods to generate story concepts, and develop analytical skills to help you decide which ideas are the most viable ones for you to write.

Don’t believe me? How about this:

“Most aspiring screenwriters simply don’t spend enough time choosing their concept. It’s by far the most common mistake I see in spec scripts. The writer has lost the race right from the gate. Months — sometimes years — are lost trying to elevate a film idea that by its nature probably had no hope of ever becoming a movie.”

– Terry Rossio (Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

Ideas cost NOTHING and require ZERO risk. And yet, oddly, the LEAST amount of time’s usually spent in the idea stage before a small fortune is dumped on a whimsy that’s still half-baked… Ideas cost nothing yet have the potential to yield inexplicably long careers and happy lives.”

– Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Zak and Miri Make a Porno)

In the Core content of The Quest, we work with eight screenwriting principles, and the second one is this:

Concept = Hook

On Monday, July 21, I will begin teaching Core II: Concept. In this 1-week online course, you will learn:

* The lowdown on high concept

* Genre, Cross Genres and Sub-Genres

* Hollywood’s obsession with ‘similar but different’

* Brainstorming and recycling

* Gender bending and genre bending

* How to test your story concept

And much more. The course consists of four components:

  • Lectures: There are six lectures written by me, each posting Monday through Saturday.
  • Writing Exercises: These optional exercises offer you the opportunity to workshop one of your own loglines and receive feedback from class members and myself.
  • Teleconference: We will have a Skype teleconference call to discuss course material.
  • Forums: The online course site has message boards where you may post questions / comments, a lively source of some great conversations.

For those of you who have not taken an online class, the interface is extremely easy. Plus online classes can be an amazing experience. Most of the activities you can do on your own time — download and read lectures, review and respond to forum discussions, upload loglines and track comments. In addition, I’ve been teaching online for over a decade and it never ceases to amaze me how much of a community emerges in such an environment with writers from all around the world including Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa.

Core II: Concept is one of eight classes in the Core curriculum. Here is the schedule for all of them this summer and fall, the only time I will be offering these courses in 2014:

July 7 – Core I: Plot
July 21 – Core II: Concept
August 4 – Core III: Character
September 1 – Core IV: Style
September 15 – Core V: Dialogue
October 27 – Core VI: Scene
November 10 – Core VII: Theme
December 2 – Core VIII: Time

Choose one or two depending upon your interests and needs. Or if you’re really serious and want to save some coin (nearly 50% off), consider The Core Package which gives you immediate access to the content for all eight Core classes which you can go through at your own pace, as well as the option of taking each 1-week online course.

I cannot overstate the importance of working with a strong story concept. Therefore Core II: Concept may be the single most important thing you do to put yourself in a position to succeed as a screenwriter.

For information on Core II: Concept, go here.

For The Core Package, go here.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

“The Secret of Effective Motivation”

July 10th, 2014 by

A guest post from my colleague and friend Tom Benedek:

In approaching character development and story, we are always dividing things between the internal and external motivations of our characters. The protagonist deals with an external conflict AND an internal conflict. Generally, plot elements are in front. In constructing a story, it may be the plot that pops into our heads first. BUT, the motivation of our characters, the internal “Whys?” of what the plot means to them, will drive the story. Scott Myers and yours truly will keep repeating that character drives plot. We can use many examples from fine film stories, movies, scripts to make this point clear.

But, now we have some actual science on this. Yes, scientists have proved this in a set of experiments. In a study of cadets at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy, they found that more ultimately succeeded if they were internally engaged in the work they were doing for its own sake than if they were more concerned with just the result of their success. The scientists are calling them internal and instrumental motives.

Here is a small excerpt from the July 4, 2014 New York Times:

THE SECRET OF EFFECTIVE MOTIVATION

Here are two kinds of motive for engaging in any activity: internal and instrumental. If a scientist conducts research because she wants to discover important facts about the world, that’s an internal motive, since discovering facts is inherently related to the activity of research. If she conducts research because she wants to achieve scholarly renown, that’s an instrumental motive, since the relation between fame and research is not so inherent. Often, people have both internal and instrumental motives for doing what they do.

What mix of motives — internal or instrumental or both — is most conducive to success? You might suppose that a scientist motivated by a desire to discover facts and by a desire to achieve renown will do better work than a scientist motivated by just one of those desires. Surely two motives are better than one. But as we and our colleagues argue in a paper newly published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, instrumental motives are not always an asset and can actually be counterproductive to success.

We analyzed data drawn from 11,320 cadets in nine entering classes at the United States Military Academy at West Point, all of whom rated how much each of a set of motives influenced their decision to attend the academy. The motives included things like a desire to get a good job later in life (an instrumental motive) and a desire to be trained as a leader in the United States Army (an internal motive).

How did the cadets fare, years later? And how did their progress relate to their original motives for attending West Point?

We found, unsurprisingly, that the stronger their internal reasons were to attend West Point, the more likely cadets were to graduate and become commissioned officers.

Also unsurprisingly, cadets with internal motives did better in the military (as evidenced by early promotion recommendations) than did those without internal motives and were also more likely
to stay in the military after their five years of mandatory service — unless (and this is the surprising part) they also had strong instrumental motives.

So, scientific research seems to prove that character is more important than plot. Our readers/ audiences won’t stop caring about plot. But those twists and turns of story must be driven by strong internal character stories. Our characters need real and concrete reasons for how they behave within the constraints of the stories we spin. That’s what keeps people watching/reading. The other interesting thing that leaps out for me from this study – what we write must matter to us personally. Calculating what ought to work in the marketplace is not enough. We have to be internally motivated to write what we write. This is at the heart of the best storytelling.

No better way to grapple with all this, tell the story that you must tell and develop, of course, a solid story outline with great character hooks than the six-week Screenwritingmasterclass.com Prep: From Concept To Outline class. The next one starts next week: Wednesday, July 16.

I am looking forward to working fellow writers through this great curriculum this summer. You can have a solid story outline to start writing this Fall through the writing exercises in this class.

For more information on the Prep workshop, go here.

Plot = Structure

June 30th, 2014 by

A screenplay is a unique literary form. It both tells a story and serves as a blueprint to make a movie. As such, understanding structure is a critical component to the craft. Check out the observations of these screenwriting veterans:

“The reality is that the single most important thing contributed by the screenwriter is the story structure.”

– William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride)

“The construction is the most important thing. It’s like building a house–you have to build the outside properly before you put the bits and pieces inside afterward. Get your story, get your architecture right, and you can always add your dialogue afterwards.”

– Charles Bennett (The 39 Steps, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea)

In the Core content of The Quest, we work with eight screenwriting principles, and the very first one is this:

Plot = Structure

On Monday, August 26, I will be starting a new cycle of Core classes, eight of them in all, beginning with Core I: Plot. In this 1-week online course, you will learn the importance of Plot = Structure as well as:

  • Key theoretical concepts from Aristotle, Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung
  • The reality of Hollywood and the “Whammo chart”
  • The External World and Internal World of a screenplay universe
  • Metamorphosis: Screenplay structure grounded in character
  • Analysis of movies including Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Silence of the Lambs, Shakespeare in Love, The Verdict, The Sixth Sense, Up, and others

And much more.

The course consists of four components:

  • Lectures: There are six lectures written by me, each posting Monday through Saturday.
  • Logline Workshop: This optional writing exercise offer you the opportunity to workshop one of your own loglines.
  • Teleconference: We will have a Skype teleconference call to discuss course material.
  • Forums: The online course site has forums where you may post questions and engage in conversation about the craft.

For those of you who have not taken an online class, the interface is extremely easy. Plus online classes can be an amazing experience. Most of the activities you can do on your own time — download and read lectures, review and respond to forum discussions, upload loglines and track comments. In addition, I’ve been teaching online for over a decade and it never ceases to amaze me how much of a community emerges in such an environment.

If you’re new to screenwriting, have intermediate experience, or you’ve read it all, but want to learn the basics of what I teach in The Quest — character based screenwriting — here is your chance to learn the foundation of screenplay structure that goes beyond formula.

Core I: Plot is one of eight classes in the Core curriculum. Here is the schedule for all of them this fall:

July 7 – Core I: Plot
July 21 – Core II: Concept
August 4 – Core III: Character
September 1 – Core IV: Style
September 15 – Core V: Dialogue
October 27 – Core VI: Scene
November 10 – Core VII: Theme
December 2 – Core VIII: Time

Choose one or two depending upon your interests and needs. Or if you’re really serious and want to save some coin (nearly 50% off), consider The Core Package which gives you immediate access to the content for all eight Core classes which you can go through at your own pace, as well as the option of taking each 1-week online course.

Go beyond formula and learn a character-based approach to screenwriting and screenplay structure.

For information on Core I: Plot, go here.

For The Core Package, go here.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

Kinds of Scenes — Instinctive Choices

June 25th, 2014 by

A guest post from my colleague Tom Benedek:

Sometimes I sit down and just can’t bring myself to write a scene I have clearly drawn right in front of me in my story outline. I know what is supposed to happen. Yet it doesn’t feel right. I don’t know where to start, who should say what. There may be a logic to why the scene is where it is in my outline — and yet none of it feels right. Nooooo! Should I force it? Maybe. Hmmm.

I stop, reconsider the elements — what happened before, what goes next. Obviously(though not to me in that moment) I can’t write the scene because it isn’t meant to be a dramatic scene. Perhaps it should be a piece of expository —  a quick and direct description in dialogue or voice over. Or it should be no more than a deep exhale before or after a big scene. I change my approach, adjust the outline, move forward with the script pages — finally. Those big scenes have to be there. But every beat in a story outline can’t be one of them.

Dramatic conflict, the big scenes, may matter most. But what comes in between, the small scenes, how we present elements of plot and character, is often nuanced through different kinds of scenes. Scenes of preparation, plant, payoff, aftermath, expository — the best scripts contain many different kinds of scenes – modulated and mixed into the standard scenes of dramatic conflict. Great meals are not just main course offerings. They are made up of different kinds of food, presented in different sizes, in multiple courses. Well told film stories operate in some ways like great meals, as well.

The components of a film script, the scenes arrive at different times, in carefully shaped forms and sizes. We may learn the most about one of our characters through one line, an idle remark, delivered before or after a huge emotional conflict. The best films are nuanced with different means, different kinds of scenes to present story. Knowing how to treat a scene, what kind of scene to write, may make or break the quality of a movie. The golden era Pixar scripts offer fantastic examples of all kinds of different scenes. By studying the kinds of scenes we can write, using these wonderful Pixar movies as role models, it is possible to build up writing style and add the best emphasis to the important things in scripts.

I have a one week class starting on Monday, June 30 which uses Pixar scripts to identify and break down all kinds of different scenes: Pixar Scene Writing Tool Kit.

It’s fun to consider how these scripts use diverse scene techniques to tell their stories. With Pixar scripts as case studies, we will be exploring the many “little things” which make these movies work so well Please do consider joining me for this fascinating class.

For more information on Tom’s upcoming class and all other Screenwriting Master Class courses and workshops, go here.

Pound through that first draft!

June 16th, 2014 by

As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one rule about a first draft and it’s this: “Get the damn thing done!”

Easy to say. Hard to do.

That’s why Tom Benedek and I created the Pages I: The First Draft writing workshop, a structured online environment – 10 weeks, 10 lectures, 10 writing assignments – to empower a writer to get from FADE IN to FADE OUT.

If you have a story you’ve pretty well developed and could benefit from:

* Weekly due dates to compel you to knock out script pages

* Lectures to steer you through the writing process

* Feedback and support from a community of fellow writers

* Analysis of your pages from a professional screenwriter and educator

* Teleconferences to drill down in your story and the craft of screenwriting

Consider enrolling in the upcoming Pages I workshop. Instructor: Yours truly.

It begins next Monday, June 23.

Go here to learn more. Or if you have any questions feel free to email me.

Let me end with a some writing quotes about first drafts:

“First drafts are for learning what your story is about.”
– Bernard Malamud

“The first draft is nothing more than a starting point, so be wrong as fast as you can.”
– Andrew Stanton

“Then comes the great leap which is the first draft, I call it ‘the muscle draft,’ where you just muscle it out. You don’t worry about what you’re missing, you just get through it, get to the end.”
– Darren Aronofsky

“Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. That first draft is just spaghetti on the wall.”
– Dennis Lehane

“Sometimes you’re swinging your way through a first draft like a blind miner with a pick-axe. That’s OK. Get it done, nothing else matters.”
–Justin Marks

“The first draft, the first structure is really important… Do it fast, don’t get stuck.”
– Oliver Stone

“No matter what you write, good or bad, it’s an improvement to a blank page.”
– Chris Sparling

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

Joss Whedon — Character Archetypes — Creating Characters

May 28th, 2014 by

A guest post from screenwriter Tom Benedek (Cocoon):

A few years ago I wrote a sci-fi script with lots of action, big set pieces. It did not sell. Whaaa! I can beat myself up in so many ways about this script. Or I can just make myself smile – knowing I had some fun writing it, worked hard, did the best I could at the time with this material. Or a little bit of both, probably.

Every once in a while, I think of the story, the script, what that movie I envisioned might be — and wonder if I should prod my agent to send it out again. Answer: No. Because I know I need to work on it first. The thing that needs the most work, I think, is the character development. They are not unique enough, lacking their own special doses of humanity and internal conflict. I can do Prep exercises and look to small films, short stories, close friends/family or people I see on the street for inspiration – to stimulate ideas for authentic emotional conflict in these characters. It is a good idea, also, to look to the work of a master of the genre — Joss Whedon.

Whedon writes fascinating characters in the sci-fi/fantasy realm. His stories are both intimate and large scale -  his characters feel so real so much of the time. They just always seem to be these authentic individuals with real, accessible problems in extraordinary situations. And we can feel, as audience, how much they just want and need the same things see all do.

To get primed for my rewrite and the reconsideration of the characters in my sci-fi script, it is going to be so helpful and inspiring be doing some close study of the work of Joss Whedon. That is what I am doing now for myself and for a one week online class that starts June 2 at Screenwritingmasterclass.com.

For more information, go here.

Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling

May 23rd, 2014 by

I’ve received some questions via email and Twitter about Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling, my 1-week online class which starts next Monday, so let me address those here in one post:

What Coen brothers movies will you be analyzing in the class?

Here is the list in chronological order:

Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis.

Will I have to have seen all of the Coen brothers movies to participate in the class?

No.

First off, I will provide a summary of each movie’s plot.

Second, I will make available scripts for all 14 movies so participants have the option of reading some during the class with all of them available for later reference [scripts provided for educational purposes only.]

Third, themes and dynamics extracted from their movies are concepts we will discuss at length both in relation to the Coens as well as generally in terms of storytelling.

Finally every participant has the option to workshop one of their own stories using any of those themes which is in a way independent of whether they have seen all or most of the Coen brothers moves or not.

Some may lump the Coen brothers into the category of “post-modern” filmmakers, but I prefer to think of them as “non-traditional traditionalists.” That is they work within the boundaries of traditional screenplay structure and narrative patterns, but in that context they make non-traditional choices.

In Hollywood where industry insiders decry formulaic writing, I can think of no better way for writers to embrace a radical spirit of ‘similar but different’ than by studying the Coen brothers, and bringing some of their sensibilities to bear on our own writing.

You may sign up for the class here.

The Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling

May 19th, 2014 by

I have two favorite contemporary filmmakers. In terms of mainstream commercial films, there is Pixar. For independent movies, there are the Coen brothers.

Both are hugely successful in what they do, commercially and critically.

That’s why I’m thrilled to follow up the popular Pixar class I teach with a companion course: Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling.

In this 1-week online course, we will analyze most of the movies the Coen brothers have written and directed including such memorable films as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit.

Through extensive analysis and discussion, we will dig into six narrative dynamics that appear throughout Coen brothers movies, and enable you to use them to workshop your own original story.

Let’s face it: The Coen brothers have created some of the most distinctive, entertaining movies in the last two decades. They return to certain themes, tropes, memes and talismans like this one: The Howling Fat Man.

We will look at that minutia because… well, it’s just fun. However our focus will be on larger principles that are more applicable to our own writing.

Here is the lecture schedule [all written by me]:

Monday, May 26 — Lecture 1: The Coen Brothers’ Narrative Legacy
Tuesday, May 27 — Lecture 2: Ordinary Character / Extraordinary Circumstance
Wednesday, May 28 — Lecture 3: The Long Shadow of Authority Figures
Thursday, May 29 — Lecture 4: The Shiny Hope of Grand Schemes
Friday, May 30 — Lecture 5: The Dynamism of Violence
Saturday, May 31 — Lecture 6: Morally Complicated Universe
Sunday, June 1 — Lecture 7: Unresolved Endings

Plus I will share 6 practical storytelling tips gleaned from Coen brothers movies.

The class includes:

Seven lectures written by Scott Myers
Six storytelling tips
Daily forum Q&As
Workshop writing exercises with instructor and class feedback
A 75-minute live teleconference between instructor and class members

Movies written by Joel and Ethan Coen have been nominated for 14 Academy Awards, winning 4 times, and nominated for the Cannes Film Festival Palm D’Or 7 times, winning once.

Like Pixar, the Coen brothers have carved their own path and have proven themselves to be master storytellers.

I am excited to share storytelling insights I have learned from studying Coen brothers movies in this brand new 1-week online class.

Consider joining me beginning Monday, May 26 for Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling, a great way to learn principles, dynamics and techniques apparent in the movies of these fine filmmakers to upgrade your own story-crafting abilities.

As the Dude might say, “That’s fuckin’ ingenious, if I understand it correctly. It’s a Swiss fuckin’ watch.”

Sign up now here.

The Small Screen Keeps Getting Larger

May 13th, 2014 by

A guest post from screenwriter Tom Benedek (Cocoon):

It was nice to have a job. I managed to hit the marks as requested by the producers and finished my TV assignment last month. Right now, I am waiting for some more notes. So I am back in my own projects — picked up my spec feature to work on, but, simultaneously, I am preparing a TV pitch to take to a producer next month. Initially, I just need a strong world of story, A plot and main character. But, I keep asking myself about the implications these elements need to offer for further development — into hours and hours of shows, if I am so lucky!

One of the amazing things about brainstorming TV show ideas is that it forces the writer to approach the story from different angles relative to feature writing. The same general directions – but certain specific angles of plot and characterization are just more critical.

Some TV show concepts are sounding more and more feature-like. Big story hooks but the issue of building out the structural consistency of every episode remains crucial. Still, and perhaps most importantly, the ongoing character relationships must be vibrant and need to offer potential for continuous renewal of minor conflict development.

TV is home and it is always there, for better or worse. The joys of television – knowing you have many hours of engaging viewing on a show you love vs. finding a feature gem on Netflix or even a movie that is kind of fun – just okay. Hey, I am looking forward to Godzilla for a break from those trenches of writing and watching on the home screen.

As that home screen gets larger, as more movie talent moves into TV, its influence will grow. And movies will morph perhaps. So — understanding TV, how script structure, plot, character differs from features is a worthwhile thing.

If this interests you, please consider my upcoming class TV: PILOT CREATION WORKSHOP starting Monday, May 19.

Here’s the link.

It is an 8 week class TV script writing workshop. We will study 9 great pilot scripts, examine their structural fundamentals, as each students builds out their series concept, outline and then writes their own 30 minute or 60 minute original pilot script.

Writing an original TV pilot is a great thing to do right now. It is fun. It is challenging. It is a great creative endeavor, writer marketing tool, means to representation and jobs. Manager, agents, producers like to read 30 page or 60 page scripts. Spec pilots sell. They get made into shows. They lead to jobs – in TV and in features.

If you have a TV idea that you wish to workshop and build out to script, please do join me for this fun and exciting class.

For more information, go here.

Write a Worthy Nemesis

May 6th, 2014 by

If the Protagonist is most often your story’s most important character, the Nemesis is not far behind. Indeed some of the greatest characters in film history have been Nemeses including Darth Vader (Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope), the Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz), Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and the shark (Jaws).

If conflict is the stuff of great drama, there is perhaps no conflict more compelling than that of a Protagonist versus a Nemesis. But what makes for a worthy Nemesis? How to develop them?

Following up on my recent Create a Compelling Protagonist course, I’m offering Create a Worthy Nemesis. It is a 1-week screenwriting course that takes a unique approach to developing this pivotal character in that the starting point is the Protagonist. Here are the 7 lecture titles:

Monday, May 12 — Lecture 1: Nemesis v. Antagonist

Tuesday, May 13 — Lecture 2: Shadow v. Light

Wednesday, May 14 — Lecture 3: Fear v. Need

Thursday, May 15 — Lecture 4: Disunity v. Unity

Friday, May 16 — Lecture 5: Overlord v. Underdog

Saturday, May 17 — Lecture 6: Intelligence v. Wisdom

Sunday, May 18 — Lecture 7: Empathy v. Sympathy

Notice the clever theme of v. for versus? There’s a reason for that, one you will discover when you take the class. In addition to the seven lectures that I am writing, there is 24/7 forum feedback, six insider tips, a teleconference, and an opportunity to workshop one of your story’s Nemesis characters.

The most recent Create a Compelling Protagonist session has been phenomenal. In fact, I have extended the class for at least another week because of all the incredible conversations we’ve had along with great workshopping of participants’ Protagonists. I fully expect the my Nemesis class will just as stimulating.

So sign up today right here and join me for a week’s journey into the dark side of the human soul, the place where great Nemeses figures dwell, waiting for you to find them.