By Writers’ Program Instructor Barney Lichtenstein
As an instructor of story analysis at the Writers’ Program, I have often been asked what an industry story analyst at a studio, production company or agency looks for when evaluating material. In terms of content, it is almost impossible to say, as what one reader passes on as too “small” or character driven, his colleague down the road may eagerly recommend. What another thinks is too high concept or violent, her counterpart may relish as a fresh take on a standard action vehicle. These various reactions have nothing to do with story analysts being capricious – on the contrary, good readers are extensions of the eyes of development executives, producers, and agents for whom they work. Hired in part because their tastes jibe with those of their employers, ideally they are familiar with some film history and major cinematic works in various genres, making it more likely they will recognize something truly original yet with commercial appeal. The bottom line however is their likes and dislikes are as varied as that of any reader, regardless whether he or she is professionally trained.
One thing however that distinguishes professional story analysts from non-professional readers is the number of screenplays read. Through the hundreds, perhaps thousands of scripts covered, a story analyst becomes fluent in the language of film. He or she recognizes and appreciates professional methods of screenwriting – what I call “in-between details”. Neither part of the narrative core, nor related to formatting or appearance, these details of writing and structure fall somewhere in the middle. A screenwriter’s facility with them demonstrates he or she understands this language of film, increasing chances that either screenplay or writer may be considered, even if the story analyst has some issues with promising material. Should a rewrite in terms of content be necessary, a producer feels more comfortable if the writer can turn out something professional in terms of cinematic style.
An article of mine previously posted on the Writers’ Program website delved into several of these in-between details, illustrating how they may be applied to one’s work. An expanded version of this piece can currently be found in weekly installments on the website for Script Magazine, illustrating virtually half the top ten list and how one may apply the most important points. To fully appreciate application of some in-between details however, it helps to have the entire list at hand. Please note how many of these points apply to scenes early in a screenplay, indicating the importance of first impressions. Once the story analyst sees you in a professional light as a screenwriter, even if there are structural problems that need work, you are one step closer to getting your work optioned, sold, or produced.
STORY ANALYST’S TOP TEN –
IN BETWEEN STRUCTURE AND FORMATTING
1. Is length appropriate for genre? (i.e. romantic comedy = 90-110 pp.; epic 120+)
2. Layout and pacing – Lean descriptions (doesn’t describe every turn of the hand and movement of the head). Generally written in master shots, not a lot of directorial cues. Are lengths of scenes appropriate? Action vehicles usually build on faster, shorter scenes – character dramas contain fewer but longer sequences. This convention should be broken only for specific effect (Poseidon Adventure focuses on longer than usual dialogue segments to emphasize characterization; Run, Lola, Run moves at lightning pace to heighten scale and suspense in an otherwise small character study).
3. Dialogue – generally short lines, not speeches, unless the script is a showcase for dialogue (My Dinner with Andre, When Harry Met Sally, Pulp Fiction). If showcasing dialogue, it’s usually a good idea to have it backed up with visuals (When Harry Met Sally utilizes numerous locations; Pulp Fiction carefully intersperses scenes of action or violence). Keep an eye out for dialogue that might seem on the nose, such as “I love you” or “I hate you,” unless well placed for dramatic effect, delivered ironically, or ideally both (Sally crying, “I hate you, Harry!” at the climax of When Harry Met Sally, but meaning just the opposite). Keep exposition to a minimum – usually better to let audience make connections than have speeches and explanations shoved down their throats.
4. Opening shots should ideally touch on theme (Lion King immediately sets up circle of life; Pulp Fiction shows young couple in diner spontaneously breaking into robbery, demonstrating criminal underworld closer to normal world than expected; random details of Paris in opening of Amelie show world as inherently chaotic, we have to create our own order).
5. Look for predominant tone established quickly and kept consistent, balanced. “Seeds” should be planted if it is going to change significantly (i.e. serious prologue at beginning of Life is Beautiful suggests darker events to occur in a film which begins as lighter comedy; mother’s concerns about crib death at the outset of Terms of Endearment create the same effect). Too often, scripts either start as humorless and heavy handed, or too light and frivolous. Make sure author is clearly creating a specific, effective tone.
6. Does the screenplay grab you by bottom of the first page, ideally the first sentence? It doesn’t have to be bomb going off, but some aspect of characterization or plot which foreshadows or puts into motion a larger hook to come (mother packing bags at outset of Kramer vs. Kramer sets up walking out on marriage). Also, does it begin in the right place? Sometimes the perfect opening may be buried pages into the text – keep an eye out for it.
7. Writing should make the most of a lead’s entrance (Bugs Bunny leaning on Elmer Fudd’s shotgun; back of Sean Connery’s head in first James Bond film). The opening line of dialogue from the lead should let us know much about the character (“What’s up, Doc?”; “Bond… James Bond”). Even if someone is just commenting on the weather, ideally it should reveal something (sees storm clouds coming when there aren’t any – pessimist; expects sun when pouring – optimist).
8. Do secondary characters and even minor ones speak with their own distinct voices? Not every extra or store clerk must have something witty or profound to offer, but whenever appropriate, supporting or minor characters with distinct points of view should be adding color to the mosaic (i.e. Oracle’s musings in “The Matrix”; “plastics” touted by materialistic party guest in “The Graduate”).
9. Title – look for one of several types:
a) Suspense (Kramer vs. Kramer; Mutiny on the Bounty; Strangers on a Train; Shakespeare in Love)
b) Mood (Basic Instinct; Unforgiven; Trainspotting; M, Spellbound, Waiting to Exhale, Speed)
c) Symbolic or metaphoric (Star Wars, Red River, Picture of Dorian Gray, Rules of the Game, No Country for Old Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Glass Menagerie)
d) Name or position of lead character (Ray, Amadeus, The Queen, Coal Miner’s Daughter). If name or social position serves as the title, the writer is basically saying, “This character is so interesting, I only need to put the name or signify who he or she is”. Such titles promise an intimate character study, regardless of genre (Godfather, Scarface, Emma, Jerry Maguire, Thelma and Louise). If the title is of someone famous, it usually works best when delivered with a touch of mystery, suggesting secrets will be revealed (The Queen; Amadeus rather than the more familiar “Mozart”, W. more effective than “Bush”; if making a film on Joan of Arc, Joan would be a more intriguing title, suggesting the woman behind the martyr). Although some place a great deal of emphasis on a title, remember terrible films may have great ones (Cleopatra nearly brought down Fox). Ultimately, focus on the text – a weak title can easily be changed.
e) Locations and events create suspense, metaphor, or both: (Pearl Harbor, Titanic, Lost Horizon, Oklahoma!, Sin City, Barbershop)
f) The stronger the irony in the title, the more powerful it often is, whether it be dramatic (Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire) mildly comedic (La Dolce Vita, Live and Let Die), or outright farce (My Best Friend’s Wedding, Forty Year Old Virgin, The Odd Couple)
10. Look for strong set ups, or what I call “planted seeds”, and their payoffs. An additional tip here: the greater the irony in the payoff, the better. The warden in “Shawshank Redemption”, a man who perverts use of religion, discovers Andy’s Bible to contain a small pick ax, explaining how Andy escaped. Luke not believing in the Force at first, but using it at the climax to defeat the Death Star. Air tanks and their volatility are referred to several times throughout “Jaws”, but it’s the cop, the one man scared of the ocean, who resourcefully uses a tank to destroy the shark. Ruby slippers – cinema’s greatest MacGuffin – are touted from the outset as possessing mysterious powers which endanger Dorothy, their magic revealed at the climax as they help bring her home. When a writer offers these types of setups and ironic payoffs, even if the structure of the material isn’t perfect, he or she is more likely to improve it in development.
© 2009 by Barney Lichtenstein