Extraordinary Worlds

dragon-blog

Movies take us to worlds and times we could never see on our own. It’s one of the hallmarks of performance drama: spectacle. But writers must also deal with another world to make their characters engaging: the extraordinary world. The two occasionally overlap and coincide, but it’s critical to know the difference.

Right now, you and I are living fairly ordinary lives. We get up, regret our life decisions while fighting rush hour, play on our phones at work, come home, procrastinate from writing or working out, and do it all over again. It’s not particularly interesting. In fact, from a screenplay perspective, we call this the “ordinary world.” Then something happens. You get a mysterious phone call. You meet that special someone. An asteroid is discovered hurtling toward earth. All of a sudden, your routine has changed.

This event—usually called the inciting incident—is what makes your story. Without it, your script is just another, ordinary day in the office. When you decide to take action, you have left the ordinary world and moved to your “extraordinary world.” This transition or turning point also moves the script into Act II.

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But it’s important that you don’t mistake an extraordinary setting with an extraordinary world. What might seem extraordinary to us may be quite mundane to our characters. Luke Skywalker lives on a desert planet orbiting two stars. He’s a moisture farmer who works with droids and Jawas. He has a hovercraft. It’s all pretty incredible to us. But to him, it’s quite ordinary. If Luke never gets R2-D2’s message, there is no story. Two hours of moisture farming does not a good movie make.

On the other side of the coin, contemporary, realistic movies have much subtler extraordinary worlds. In Nebraska, David Grant takes his father on a road trip to Nebraska to claim his sweepstakes prize. It’s fairly mundane, and some people found the film boring. But Will and his father’s lives change significantly the moment they hit the road.

The extraordinary world often involves a change in venue. In Star Wars, it’s when Luke leaves his “backwater” planet. In Nebraska, it’s when David and his father get on the highway. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s everything outside of the Shire. But this isn’t always the case.

In Office Space, Peter Gibbons doesn’t change his venue, but rather his attitude. In Juno, Juno’s extraordinary world is the world of being a pregnant teenager. In Limitless, Eddie Morra changes his life with a pill. The important thing here is that the character’s normal routine has been interrupted, and rather than crawl under a rock, they’ve committed to living in this new world.

At the end of a movie, characters often return to their ordinary worlds as changed people. Their experience in the extraordinary world has taught them something. The return to the ordinary world also gives the writer an opportunity to show how much a character has changed over the course of their adventure.

In Star Wars (although it happens two films later), Luke returns to Tatooine as a Jedi. In Nebraska, David and his father return home without the sweepstakes winnings, but they have a new truck, a new compressor, and a better relationship. In Office Space, Peter Gibbons returns to work, but this time it’s not in an office. (Limitless has a bad ending.*)

This extraordinary world is really what drives your story. Your protagonist’s reaction to these extraordinary events and circumstances are what define their character. It’s part of the premise: battling an evil galactic empire, taking a road trip with your father, dealing with teen pregnancy. Without that extraordinary event, there is no story.

So remember when you craft your next great script—whether it’s about a Jedi master or a paper pusher—to your characters, the next ninety pages of their story need to be nothing short of extraordinary.

 

*The ending to Limitless was rewritten and reshot multiple times without any improvement. But if you look at the movie from the perspective of Eddie Morra’s extraordinary world, there’s an obvious, satisfying solution.

In the beginning of the movie, he’s a poor, struggling writer. The end of the movie should reflect that point. Ideally, the biggest thing he would have learned from taking NZT was that he shouldn’t be taking NZT. It makes sense. After all, at the midpoint Eddie says, “You know what, let’s not invade Russia in the winter. Let’s go home, let’s pop a beer, and let’s live off the interest.” The movie should end with Eddie working on the great American novel the hard way. Maybe with a bag of cash under his bed.

Instead, there’s this vague ending where Eddie doesn’t really learn anything or change as a person. He’s still on top, but only because of the drug. And the only takeaway for the audience is that apparently mind-enhancing drugs are amazing.

Your Script is Too Long

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I think Robert McKee said, “Your story is as long as it needs to be, and then it ends.” Hopefully (for a feature), this is between 90 and 110 pages. I aim for 100 even. Some people will quibble with that number. They’re wrong.

I’ve read dozens of scripts and never once said, “If only this script were fifteen pages longer, I could recommend it.” Once you hit 90 pages, you’ve proven that your script has enough material to make a feature. Beyond that, you’re just adding days to the shooting schedule.

From a reader’s perspective, 120 pages looks intimidating. It’s thicker and heavier than the last script they read (and the last script they read was probably a heaping pile of garbage). Since most scripts are shorter, it also suggests that you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s two strikes against you before the reader even gets past the title page.

Think about it this way. 120 is 33% more than 90. In minutes, that’s 2 hours versus 1 ½ hours. A reader could already be at happy hour if it weren’t for your extra 30 pages.

All of this may sound arbitrary, but it actually helps your writing. Forcing yourself to choose the most important scenes, the best lines, the critical story beats will give you a tighter, better script. All those decisions you vacillate about in your rough draft will be crystal clear when you force yourself to make cuts. Do your characters really need to take that fifth trip to White Castle?

I’ve included a sample scene from my latest script here so you can see what it looks like before and after I trimmed the fat.

(To give you a visual, if this post were 33% shorter, it would end here.)

What if you are literally writing an epic? Fine. Go for it. But a professor of mine pointed out that you could cut 30 minutes from each Lord of the Rings movie and the ending would still be the same. (Don’t even get me started on The Hobbit.)

If you follow McKee’s story outlines and Snyder’s beat sheet, you’ll find that your script tends to fall in that 90-110 page range pretty easily. That’s what 100 years of filmmaking has taught us. I actually prefer if my rough drafts run 120-130 pages because I know I have more than enough material to work with. But when I trim the fat, that’s when I know I’ve got something worthwhile.

What’s This Script About, Anyway?

People like to joke that in movies there’s always a parking spot right in front of the courthouse/airport/lawyers office/spaceship the protagonist is trying to get to. There’s a reason for that. Finding a parking spot is boring. Nobody cares. I watch movies to escape the mundaneness everyday life. Unless your script is Parking Wars*, I don’t want to see people looking for parking spots.

Occasionally, I’ll see writers include this kind of stuff in their script. If it’s a neurotic Woody Allen-esque comedy, it works. Fast and Furious 17: The Later Years? Maybe. Schindler’s List? No. The bigger landmine you have to watch out for is accidentally getting on a tangent that you didn’t mean to.

I’m currently reading a novel that has multiple characters pray or mention praying at multiples times. So what? Well, this is purportedly a legal thriller. But when you have enough characters come to Jesus, you’re actually looking at a religious novel set over the backdrop of lawyerly intrigue. I don’t think this was the author’s intent. She’s gone on a tangent.

“But people pray!” you’re saying to yourself. “I’ve seen it. At least in movies.” Yes. They also park cars. But they always have a parking spot. If you have created a character who prays before meals and blesses themselves every time they hear an ambulance, prayer is just a manifestation of their character. If all of your characters pray, talk about prayer, struggle with prayer, use prayer to solve problems, you’ve just written a script about prayer.

I don’t want to knock prayer—or parking for that matter. Tangents can be anything: folding laundry, having sex, checking your email, playing Frisbee Golf, or going to the bathroom. If a character uses the bathroom, no big deal. But if they go multiple times, it becomes a character trait (Irritable Bowel Syndrome?). If multiple characters need the bathroom throughout the script, your audience is going to think someone poisoned the craft service table. They may have. But is that what your movie is about?

Here are 2 great exceptions that prove the rule. Hanna and Stranger than Fiction both include tooth-brushing scenes. Nobody cares about brushing their teeth. But Marissa Wiegler and Harold Crick do. Their meticulousness contrasts them with the rest of humanity and defines their character. This seemingly benign act is critical to the story. The prayer mentioned above? Not so much.

Remember, you’re writing fiction, not documenting daily life. Everything in your script is there for a reason. If it doesn’t contribute to the story, don’t put it in. Don’t confuse or bore your audience with mundane details. Don’t go on a tangent!

 

*I worked on Parking Wars. It was a “reality show” about fighting tow truck drivers. I thought I would die. Not figuratively.

How to Break into the Industry

 

When people ask me how I got into the film industry I tell them I must have made a huge mistake in a previous life. The less glamorous side of the industry and the stress of freelancing require their own post. But since someone asked me this very question Thursday (in between me wrangling seagulls and trying not to catch anything while filming in an infectious disease lab), here’s my advice. (Disclaimer: This is for newbies. If you’re in the industry and just want to be famous, I can’t help you there.)

INTERN

Yes, you’ll make coffee, empty the trash, and fight with copiers for free, but you’ll also learn more than any book or class can possibly teach you. More importantly, you set yourself up for success. If you do well, you’ll hopefully get hired as a production assistant. Then, you work your hardest and bide your time. Someday, a trusted crewmember won’t be able to make it to set, and you’ll be looking at a promotion. You’d be surprised at the number of producers, directors, and writers I’ve met who got where they are just because they were in the right place at the right time. (We sarcastically call this being the best… available.)

HAVE AN OPEN MIND

When you think of the film industry, you probably imagine a Hollywood director making a feature film. There’s generally only one director on a film, but every film has another hundred crewmembers. Do some research to learn about other crew positions (What the hell is a gaffer anyway?) and build a background in that field. Intern!

Don’t have any connections in Hollywood? Consider a city where you do. Atlanta, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh are some of the places that have been attracting production recently. A local guy who knows the fastest way across town and the best place to get Thai is worth more than a seasoned PA who thinks that the “Schuylkill” is a river.

Consider productions other than features. About half of my work comes from the commercial world. Every year, I lose another coworker to NFL Films or MLB Network. Countless companies produce industrial videos and business-to-business marketing material. It may not seem as “glamorous” as Hollywood, but the work is the same and the pay is often better.

BUILD A PORTFOLIO

If you’re still intent on being a Hollywood director, start with the directing (irrelevant of how far you may live from Hollywood). It’s never been easier to produce and distribute your own work. It will be a labor of love, and you should not expect to make any money. But you will learn a ton through the filmmaking process. It will also allow you to build a portfolio and connections. From there you could consider the festival route or pitch your next project to a company. Make a friend at an ad agency and direct their next spot. There is no single recommended or guaranteed route. The portfolio is critical, however. In a creative field, no one cares where you went to school. They want to see your work.

FILM SCHOOL?

The great scandal of film school is that almost nothing you learn in film school is applicable on a film set. You don’t need to know what “mise-en-scene” means to use a C-stand. (No one cares what mise-en-scene means, anyway.) But film school does make it easier to get an internship and make industry connections. If you have the money—or better yet, a scholarship—go for it. But if you do, make sure you intern! Spend time working on an actual set. You don’t want to graduate only to learn that you hate what you do and can’t get a job with a film degree.

If you haven’t caught on, I would say interning is the single best, most reliable way to get into the film industry. How do you find these internships? Cold calling production companies is one option. Ask friends of friends who might have an in. Check in with your local film office.

www.mandy.com is an industry website that includes a job list. It’s not great, but it’s an option. I’ve used www.craigslist.com both to get and post jobs. Be careful here because craigslist does advertise for porn shoots. (It’s usually pretty obvious.)

When you finally do get to set, try not to look like a deer in the headlights (especially, if you’ve gotten there through a friend of a friend). Here are three books to help you out with that. They’re all quick reads.

Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde: an Insider’s Guide to Film Slang

More or less a dictionary, Strike the Baby gives you a good primer of film terms. It’s a great resource if you’re trying to learn about the different jobs on a set.

Movie Speak: How to Talk Like You Belong on a Film Set

Although it’s setup the same way as Strike the Baby, it’s a little less broad an more deep. Tony Bill augments his book with anecdotes and thoughts garnered from decades in the industry. He also has some good suggestions on how to break into the industry.

The Hollywood Assistant’s Handbook: 86 Rules for Aspiring Power Players

Some of this book is Hollywood specific, but it covers much of the work you’ll be doing as an intern or PA. For example: Don’t touch the celebrities is pretty universal. It was co-written by Pete Nowalk, the guy who created How to Get Away with Murder, so I’d say he knows a thing or two about “breaking in.”

Screenwriting VS Everything Else

When I first graduated college, I wrote a novel. It took about six months. The second draft took an additional three months. Today, it remains a total POS. (That’s a technical film industry term that means Piece of Shit.)

Then I wrote a feature film. That took about month. The second draft took about a week. Curiously, that also was and remains a total POS. But I did learn something. Screenwriting is very different than other kinds of writing. For one thing, there are fewer words involved.

In a novel, the writer must visualize everything for the audience. Here’s the description of the protagonist’s office from my novel.

It was long and thin, about eight feet across and fifty feet long. In a bygone era, it had been the hallway that led to the boiler room. To the left, a single row of cubicles lined the left side of the wall. Naked incandescent bulbs hung from the ceiling at ten-foot intervals giving the room a certain film noir effect. The floor was dusty concrete. The walls were actually steel and copper pipes with a layer of newer PVC piping over top.

Here is the same description adapted for TV.

INT. OFFICE AREA – DAY

Four rows of cubicles nestle amid water pipes and spider webs in the basement of the Transportation Building.

A little more succinct, no?

Thing is, I realized I was kind of a minimalist. My prose wasn’t winning any awards, so why inflict more of it on the world? Sure, a handful of people will read your scene descriptions, but your audience never will. In fact, production will pay a dozen people (Art Department, Locations Department, Wardrobe Department, AD’s) to build, decorate, and populate your world. If you, like me, are more interested in the story than the set pieces, why waste your time writing about the curtains?

The trade-off for this is that screenwriters must abide by certain “rules.” The most important one is that everything must be visible. Your characters cannot “think,” “realize,” “feel,” or “remember.” (“Chuck realizes this is the girl he remembered from earlier.” How the hell can you show that?) Characters can, however, furrow their brows, smile, laugh, cry, and stare into space. (“Chuck smiles at the girl wearing the same bright red sweater from scene 5.”) Dialogue, which might sound snappy—or at least benign—may come across as wooden or “on the nose” when read aloud. (“Oh, I see. You think I was trying to get your attention with this bright red sweater.” Always read your dialogue aloud!) And just because something happened doesn’t mean it’s interesting. It especially doesn’t mean it’s visually interesting. Screenwriting is a different beast.

Screenplays are always written in third person present tense. I don’t know why. I’ve been told it makes things more dramatic. Some people use the first person plural “we,” but that’s pretentious and can create problems. (Strangely, I find the first person present tense particularly absurd. This was the primary reason I couldn’t read The Hunger Games. “Strong arms lift me as I blast the head off a mutt… I begin frantically pulling people up off the ladder.” Is she writing in a journal while all of this is happening?!)

Bit by bit, I plan to break down some of the mystery of screenwriting for you. I’ll augment this with samples of my own work to help illustrate my point. For now, I’m going to recommend 3 screenwriting books to you. You should read them IN ORDER. Even if you have some background in film or screenwriting, I can’t endorse these books enough.

The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. Updated every couple of years, it’s currently in its sixth edition. It’s billed as 5 books in one. Depending on where you are in your writer’s journey, not all of the books will be applicable. But even if you’ve spent a decade on film sets and have a box full of scripts, you’ll find yourself dragging The Screenwriter’s Bible out every couple of months for formatting suggestions. Trottier also has a great blog www.keepwriting.com.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Snyder, God rest him, has a very unique and accessible approach to analyzing and writing scripts. He breaks things down into simple rules, and while I don’t agree with all of them, the unique take lets you look at your scripts in a new light. He doesn’t go into formatting or most screenplay terminology, which is why this shouldn’t be the first book you read about screenwriting. He does, however, give you lots of fun tips and tricks, and a fantastic tool for outlining (the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet). It really helps you look at screenwriting from a different angle. And the tips can get you out of that writer’s block. Much of Snyder’s work lives on www.savethecat.com (Bonus credit. If you have free time, check out Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.)

Finally, the granddaddy of them all, Robert McKee’s Story. This is a master’s level tome and I DO NOT recommend it unless you already have a grasp on the basics of screenplay structure. At times it feels like a philosophy textbook, but the sections about clichés, diction, and “slice of life” are priceless. I don’t want to scare you away from McKee-this is a seminal work-but it’s not a good place to start.

Once you tackle those, you’re lightyears ahead of the next “aspiring writer” or “idea guy” you know. Check back in, and hopefully I can offer you some more insight.