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Script Analysis Matrix

We. Gapoz productions, are building here a new structure within our family and social site, specifically designed to help one another in our creative pursuits. Writing, including novels and scripts, videos, and music are all to be provided a means to allow members to review and analyze your work, with the sole purpose of helping each of us refine our skills. Having much experience in script writing analysis, and as the primary contributor to the ‘Writer’s Wrench’ blog, I offer here some guidance for those that may wish to provide input on future submitted scripts. The following comes from my ‘Criteria for Analysis’ page when I did this for money.


A friend of mine entered a cake baking contest recently, and spent hours preparing the most delectable strawberry upside down cake. Unfortunately, the cake was the laughingstock of the competition. Seems my friend wasn’t told that judging focused primarily on calories per slice. (:

More to the point at hand, I can’t tell you how many times people have told me about wildly divergent opinions on a specific piece of work. Truth is, opinions are rarely if ever devoid of some prejudice. A reviewer that loves comedy and is in a great mood, will likely find a comedy script more to their liking than someone that prefers drama and just spilled coffee in their crotch. There simply is no script that everyone will agree on. The best you can hope for then, is to understand what objective standards the reviewer uses as a hedge against personal preference.

With that in mind, the following briefly outlines an abbreviated version of the matrix I use to evaluate. The examples represent the ideal for each category. The full matrix I utilize for scoring breaks these components down. In other words, the closer your script comes to the definitions below, the higher I rate it. Even though I use a matrix as a template for evaluation, be aware that one of the gospel truths of screenwriting, or story telling in general, is simply: “No Rule is Absolute”

The ultimate goal of a good screenplay is to be entertaining and interesting. Write the truth, and use rules as guidelines, not as barriers.

THEME and CONCEPT (Premise):

– The basic theme, idea, point, or concept can be immediately discerned and precisely summarized, usually in a single sentence.

– All elements of the work reflect the basic theme, highlight it, counterpoint it.

– Subplots are related to the central theme.

– The theme has natural and universal conflict.

– All viewers, regardless of time or culture, can relate to the theme.

* It is a marketable idea that would be enjoyed by producers.

STRUCTURE

The structure adheres to the standard 3 acts, or rests upon the related principles and deviates for a specific purpose inherent to the story.

First Act illustrates:

* PRE‐EXISTING LIFE: the situation before a major change. The ‘Once upon time’ portion.

* INCITING INCIDENT: The unexpected. What happens to tip the cart, change the normal flow of life. What situation demands response from the protagonist.

* QUESTION RAISED: What question is raised to pull the viewer through the story..

* ACT ONE DECISION/GOAL: What does the Protagonist set out to accomplish?

Second Act illustrates

* DECISIVE ACTION: 

* POSITIVE PROGRESS.

* FIRST REVERSAL: Stakes raised. Risk accumulates. Tension and release..

* MID‐POINT: Set Back, Possibly new antagonistic force, full commitment.

* OPPOSITION: Protagonist repeatedly faces opposition to current plan.

* SECOND REVERSAL: Reacts to mid-point events and usually comes out worse.

Third Act illustrates

• FALSE CLIMAX: Act Three begins. Protagonist’s goal may seem to have been realized.

• CHANGE DECISION: New approach based on change in protagonist.

• CLIMAX: Change in Protagonist allows the problem established in Act One to be resolved.

Other Considerations of Structure

Every scene advances to the next and can’t take place without the previous.

-Does each scene have a purpose?

-If you pull a scene out, will it be missed?

-Can a scene or event occur somewhere else or must it occur at that point only?

A good script contains subplots, integral to upholding story structure.

-Every scene that does not have to do with the main plot should be part of a subplot.

Does each subplot form an interesting story on its own.

Do the subplots have obstacles and reversals?

Do subplots relate to the main goal, and intertwine with purpose to the main plot?

Romance Subplot

Critical to all stories in every genre in mainstream movies, the romance is the primary subplot. The romance does not always mean a sexual attraction. In the Old Man and the Sea, the romance was between the old man and the sea..

Is the romance of interest. Would the audience appreciate it. Does it have its own obstacles.

CHARACTER

Successful movies generally have five basic characters:

• Protagonist – human, good, believable, consistent, and flawed.

• Antagonist – The secondary main character that starts or is the problem.

• Ally (the Buddy)—The Ally offers support.

• Messenger (the Catalyst)—The Messenger brings helpful information.

• Attractor (the Love Interest, Companion, Romancer).

Characters can serve more than one function.

Do the characters posses the qualities necessary to fulfill their roles in the script?

Are the characters developed in three dimensions: physically, mentally, and socially? Does a character exist in all of these fashions or is something missing?

Good characters have arcs, and are different by the end.

Effective characters always have more than one dimension to them, and seem real.

Does the character grow, change, or actively make a decision not to change?

Do the characters all have their own purpose in the story?

Are the characters enjoyable enough to spend a whole movie with?

DIALOGUE

– Principal characters have distinct speech patterns and don’t sound alike.

– Dialogue adds to the characters and story without explaining what is going on or  telling what has happened or is about to happen.

– Characters always use subtext, never overtly stating what they mean or feel.

–  believable, with character interactions occurring at appropriate moments.

– flows, each interaction leading into the other. No lines out of place.

– reflects the time period and subculture in which the story takes place.

– memorable. The audience will recall specific lines.

– The dialogue has a beat, uses alliteration and assonance.

– Action and dialogue balance each other, without stalling the screenplay.

– The dialogue is not expository.

– Voice‐overs are used only to “brighten the picture,” not to present plot points.

 PACING

• Everything is timed perfectly, tension builds, story does not drag.

• The story is fascinating throughout.

• Characters appear with the right amount of frequency and duration.

• Important events appear on screen.

CONFLICT

• Universal conflict is built into the premise.

• The obstacle provides a sufficient challenge.

• The script features both internal and external conflict.

• The conflict causes the reader to experience tension, anticipation, and suspense.

• The reader experiences pleasure when the tension caused by the conflict is released.

• The script features multiple levels of conflict.

• The level of conflict builds over time.

• The main conflict is experienced directly by the Protagonist.

LOGIC

* The story and plot follow consistent and believable patterns, either of reality, or of the world created and described within the script.

* Characters and actions properly reflect the rules of logic established.

WRITING

• The script is properly formatted as an industry standard screenplay.

• The script falls into a 90–130 page length without being crammed or stretched.  Scenes are not obviously cut or added to fit within this page length.

• Action paragraphs are grammatically well written, composed of 3–4 lines.

• There are few or no typos.

• The script does not tell the director how to film or actors how to deliver their lines.

• The script only contains visuals that can be shown on screen.

• Parentheticals are used sparingly

• There is a clear and consistent tone that goes from dialogue, to story, to action lines.

• The story makes logical sense but is not predictable.

• The screenplay is easy to follow and does not require multiple reads to understand.

OVERALL: In this summary portion of my analysis, I give my OPINION on how the various components create a whole. This is often weighted, and sometimes that weight is distributed differently from genre to genre. I often address my thoughts here on the originality of the script, in terms of any fresh and/or unique perspectives it brings to the concept. It is also sometimes true that ‘the sum is greater than the whole”. That is to say, the overall score may be higher than the average of the components. The reason is simple enough, and pertains to the gospel guidance that “No rule is absolute”. Conversely, the overall score may be lower than the element scores would suggest. This usually occurs when a writer is so focused on following the ‘rules’, that they forget the point of telling a story.

COMMERCIAL VIABILITY: This paragraph is included only when specifically purchased, and addresses cost, casting, and potential targeting. *NOT OF CONSIDERATION ON THIS SITE.

– Unique hook—something we have not seen before.

– Brand new idea, perspective, or experience .

– can’t get from real life or never even imagined they could get from real life.

– Follows established conventions and adds something new.

Hopefully this will be of use to you that wish to review scripts, where the elements rating will appear as shown below. Happy reading and writing!

Theme/Concept
1
Structure
1
Characters
1
Dialog
1
Pace
1
Conflict
1
Logic
1
Style/Voice
1
Writing
1
Average
 yasr-loader

Welcome to the Writer’s Wrench

FADE IN:

EXT. GARAGE – DAY

The open door of the garage is a black hole in the blinding sun. The READER, talented, imaginative, determined but inexperienced, warily approaches.

A huge storyboard consumes the center of the garage. The legs and feet of an AGELESS MAN extend from under the board. They twitch as he works. Soft swearing, unintelligible.

Silence, the legs still.

The gravelly voice startles the Reader.

AGELESS MAN

“You’re blocking my light. If you’re coming in, come in.”

The Reader coughs nervously, checks over his shoulder, cautiously steps into the unknown.

INT. GARAGE – DAY

The Reader takes a deep breath, gazes around the room. Clean. Empty, but for the board.

READER

“I was told you might be able to help me with my writing.”

AGELESS MAN

“Drop the exposition. I know why you’re here. What’s it about?”

The Reader, nervous, shifts his weight, struggles for words.

READER

“It’s about… well, a guy that loses his motivation and–“

AGELESS MAN

“Never mind the sales pitch. What’s the theme?”

READER

“Oh, love is the theme.”

AGELESS MAN

“Love’s a word, not a theme. Love stinks. That’s a theme.”

The Ageless Man rolls out from under the board, looks at the Reader with clear green eyes, not unkindly.

AGELESS MAN

“What is it you want?”

The Reader glances out the door, into the blinding light.

READER

“There’s so much conflict. So many people pointing in different directions.”

He looks back at the Ageless Man with pained confusion. The Ageless Man meets his gaze.

AGELESS MAN

“Conflict is the fuel of your story, but an obstacle to your writing.”

READER

“One person tells me to plan out each act, calculate each plot point, do biographies of each character… Someone else says go with the flow, write whatever I feel, worry about the rest after I have a draft. I just don’t know which approach to follow.”

The Ageless Man stares at him compassionately. A small smile.

AGELESS MAN

“The one that works. There are a hundred ways to build a mousetrap. In the end, the trap has to meet certain requirements. Most importantly, it has to catch mice.”

READER

“Can you teach me?”

AGELESS MAN

“I can, if you are willing to learn.”

FADE OUT:

Lyrics: Album-Stress Test by Dillon Crossley

2000

Get in and drive thats all he said
Foot to the floor heavy like lead
I fell behind in this apparent race
But traveled on with a heated chase
Down windin roads we surely did go
Left right above and below
Under the stars we drove that night
The dash and headlights the only light

We raced for miles down road after road
Infront of me I noticed he slowed
I caught up and started my taking
Taking the lead my ultimate making
I inched ahead with him close on my tail
But in mind I could not fail
This went for miles if I do recall
My memories shakey I dont know it all

What I do know though it lasted a while
Through mountains and towns mile after mile
Until finally when I looked in the mirror
My journeys purpose was clearer and clearer
For this race was not a race at all
I wrapped my head around all that we saw
Worry so much and you’ll wind up dead
Get in and drive thats all he said

Been Gone Too Long

Perched up on this rock
Secluded from the breeze
I think about the walk
And all the memories
The walk I took this day
To this spot among the trees
And all along the way
Rediscovery
Suddenly I remember
Just how long its really been
The flame has fallen to an ember
We’ve all been stretched so thin

Yeah i’ve been gone too long
From this old life of mine
So here I sing this song
Hoping that I can find
A way back into this life
This world of exploration
If not for others strife
I’d fall into fixation

Yeah i’ve been gone too long
Yeah i’ve been gone too long
But i’ll be back so soon
Its then I will attune
To the rushing water
And gazing through the trees
Feeling that brisk mountain breeze
Rustle all the leaves

Yeah i’ve been gone too long
From this old life of mine
So here I sing this song
Hoping that I can find
A way back into this life
This world of exploration
If not for others strife
I’d fall into fixation

Mean Drayman

Watch your step
Cause’ hes around
The draymans comin’
Hes comin’ down

Watch your step cause hes around
The draymans comin’, hes comin’ down
He sees you walkin’ and crossin’ the street
He doesn’t stop, he runs over your feet

That mean old, mean old
Mean drayman
That mean old, mean old
Mean drayman

Now listen
You may be in a hurry but that doesn’t fall on us
You’d better slow down dont let it fall and cause a fuss
Because listen, old drayman
These people need their booze
And listen, old drayman
I’ve got nothin’ else to loose
So keep on rollin’ down the street
The deadline you must meet
And for all the trouble I better get
Some of that tasty treat
Some of that tast treat

That mean old, mean old
Mean drayman
That mean old, mean old
Mean drayman

Saw It Through the Window

Seat shakin’ going about 55
Long time comin’ now on this drive
I’m counting down the time until we land
Onto those footprints where we will stand
Times draggin’ on though I must admit
My eyes are weary and may have to quit
Heads leaned up against this pane
The shaking glass starts to rattle my brain

I start to think what did I do?
Sign away my life god is it true
Sweat drippin’ please take me back
Im still on the bus about to crack
Despite the bullshit I managed to slip
Into a slip so that I could skip
The rest of this anxious ride
Soon we’ll all be standin’ side by side

Vivid dreams lasted through my sleep
Runnin’ through the jungles oh so deep
Rifle in hand and scoutin’ for traps
Lifes pulling me up by the boot straps

Seat shakin’ going about 55
How much time is left on this drive
Im counting down the time until we see
This marshland where we will be
Im gettin’ nervous I must admit
Or am I ready to get into this shit?
Heads leaned up against this pane
Already doubtin’ if I am sane

Over and over I heard the screams
Think im lucky that these are just dreams
But who knows whats left in store
I’ve heard stories but nothin’ more

Woke up to the mumbles of men
Is that it they said again
I looked up and I knew though
I saw the island through the window

Stress Test

All this confusion running in my head, im dyin’
I need to get up before I sink like a block of lead, im tryin’
One by one they’re growin’ into a man, im worried
Please understand me i’ll be back as soon as I can, im hurried

Stretched so thin but in the end the day is done, like any
Even still I feel as though i’ve just begun, so many

My head is swelling, and im up in flames
My bodies breakin’, i’ve been up for days, now
Should I keep going, or should I just quit?
Its too bad that I give a shit, I swear

Well its been months now since i’ve looked upon this page, im strugglin’
With all I went through boy i’m glad i’m out of that stage, I was jugglin’
Dont get me wrong though its on my mind still all the time, maybe I do
Do what they say though life is more than just a climb, I miss you

My head is swelling, and im up in flames
My bodies breakin’, i’ve been up for days, now
Should I keep going, or should I just quit?
Its too bad that I give a shit, I swear

The Dyatlov Pass


The storm is settin’ in
And im getting cold
Im wondering where we
We might go
Ive done this thing before
It wasnt quite as hard
This mountain is no joke
This is no backyard
But travel on we must
I will not throw a fuss
We will set up camp soon
And there we will discuss
All our travel plans
Trekking through the snow
Glad we’ve come prepared
For whats left to go

The storm of 59′

Nightfalls coming fast
Visions getting low
Frost is setting in
On top of all the snow
We settle in the tent
Finally warming up
Blocked from all the wind
Enjoying a hot cup
We talk of whats to come
And laugh about whats done
Alot still left in store
I shouldnt jump the gun
I lay myself to sleep
So does all the team
My eyes begin to close
And whats next was a dream

I didnt see my clothes
Up on those slopes
I just clawed and ran and ran and ran
Keep going as fast as you can

The Eyes In The Hole


Tell me a story cause I need a distraction
I’ve never been so nervous from my own action
I know what I want but im lost in limbo
So tell me a story and help me let go
Theres a hole a wall, a hole in the wall
Down at the end, the end of the hall
And if you stare inside for too long
The eyes open up and stare back strong

Oh you were wrong
Dont stare too long

I once was a man so great in my ways
Lead an army of many and pondered for days
On ways to conquer vanquish and when
Bestow all my honor onto my kin
But this victory seemed so far away
The clouds settled in dirty and grey
The sun was obscured and with it the light
Push forward we must on through the night

Theres a hole in the wall, a hole in the wall
Down at the end the end of the hall
And if you stare inside for too long
The eyes open up and stare back strong

Oh you were wrong
Dont stare too long

One by one men dropped like flies
I pushed them forward after the prize
This prize was a secret within my words
A secret safe amongst the birds
They continued to leave
I continued to go
Whether or not I’d find
I did not know
So maybe I fell
Back into my old ways
Fixation drove me
Drove me for days

I once was a man so great in my ways
Fixation drove me drove me for days
I once was a man so great in my ways
Fixation drove me drove me for days

Theres a hole in the wall, a hole in the wall
Down at the end the end of the hall
And if you stare inside for too long
The eyes open up and stare back strong

Oh you were wrong
Dont stare too long

We’ll See


Well im starin’ at a blank page thinking about
What I could write but nothings coming out
Head in hands lift it up and shout
I need to calm down I think I need to chill out

Cause im starin’ at a blank page thinking of you
Thinking about all the things I could do
All my time spent inside these walls
So I gotta move quick gotta grow some balls

Well the page is filling up but still I dont know
Whats it about baby maybe you could show
Show me the ways of doing work on a page
Help me unlock my mind from its cage

Cause im getting tired of the same old thing
Work all day and bring it back again
Hell I cant even land this dream
So I hope you’ll be the one to give me a ring

Well im starin’ at a full page thinking about
How you made all the words fall right out
Head in hands lift it up with doubt
Need to calm down think I need to chill out

 

Rocky Horror Music Show in Ashville

This has been a long time coming. Unfortunately I did not get to attend in the end. Making the trip would have been just a bit too hard for me due to some current physical issues. I really did want to be there to support my son, Troy, AKA Frank-N-Furter. My son Nicholas, daughter Amber and her husband Russell were able to go and from what I heard, had a blast! Many thanks for the T-Shirt and stickers 🙂

I at least had the opportunity to spend some time with a few awesome grandchildren, the youngest of which plays some mean Beat Saber. That’s another post …

My first blog

So this is a cheap and easy way to market my new book eh? Throw a picture of the cover in as featured image and talk all about it here right?

The Writing Lotto

I lifted this from Facebook, one of the hidden gems that can sometimes be found there. Leanne Owens is a self publishing author that has seen some success. More than many will, I suspect. She is the prototype of the writer I would like to see in the Writer’s Wrench. Someone that recognizes we always have more to learn and can find room for improvement no matter our level or experience. Thank you Leanne.

Posted by Leanne Owens on Facebook.

The chance of becoming a millionaire from writing books isn’t much different from the chance of becoming a millionaire from winning lotto. If your aim is simply to ‘be a millionaire’, keep buying lotto tickets and spend your spare time on hard physical work to pay the bills and put food on the table.
Most of us write because we love writing – it’s an art that we work on all the time to improve until it reaches the point where other people love reading what we write. I doubt I’ll ever make a million from my writing, but I love my five-star reviews, I love getting fan letters from readers, I love making enough from the art of writing to pay bills… but even if it didn’t pay the bills, I’d still write because the stories want to be told. I write because that’s my voice – some sing, some draw, some grow, and we, the authors, write.
Writing is like other forms of art. It helps if you have a natural ability, but nothing beats thousands of hours of practice. I have over a million words published in books but, before that, I probably wrote ten or twenty million words in unfinished books and unpublished stories, articles for magazies that were published, as well as writing exercises. To be a great pianist, you don’t just decide, “I want to play the piano and become famous next year”, it’s a life-time commitment to the art that may or may not pay off, but all those people who love playing the piano don’t stop because it doesn’t pay big money, they continue to play because they love it.

Writing is an art like playing the piano. Commit to it as an art that you need to perfect, and practice until your writing becomes something that others want to read. Unfortunately, Amazon has created millions of authors who think that just because they wrote a book and published it, they should be making lots of money from it. They don’t realise that they are like tone-deaf piano players who sat down to a piano for the first time six months ago, can’t read sheet music, don’t know the difference between staccato and legato, and have no idea when they are hitting the wrong notes, but expect people to pay them to play.

The piano-player simile is not an insult – we all started there. None of us were born with the ability to write a book that readers love reading. In the world of ‘books-published-in-English’, most of the successful books are from people who have English as a first language and who studied English at school for 12 years, then many continued to study it at university, and then spent years or decades perfecting the art of writing before producing a book that people buy and recommend. That makes it difficult for English-as-2nd-language people; it’s not impossible as many have achieved success BUT it requires a lot of commitment, dedication, and practice to reach the level of writing that readers are willing to pay to read.

Simply ‘writing a book’ without the proper skills is not much different from someone who sits at a piano and bangs out sound without any idea of how to make a tune. I’m not writing this to disillusion you – if you love writing, you will love all the learning and practice that goes into becoming the sort of author who creates books that readers want to buy. If you want to make a million or want a quick return, it’s not for you. If you love writing, love telling stories, love learning how to improve your writing, then keep going because that is your voice.

HOW TO BE SUCCESSFUL
  • Read extensively. Read thousands of books by successful authors.
  • Learn the art of the language in which you will write – unfortunately, English is one of the hardest to master but it gives you the chances of the best sales once mastered. If English is not your first language and you are struggling with it, perhaps forget the money and success, and write works of art in your own language.
  • Practice writing. Write millions of words so that they flow from you like music from the hands of a concert pianist.
* HAVE A PLAN: the key to success as an author on Amazon is to:
  • write REALLY well,
  • write books of good length (readers dislike ‘books’ that are under 100 pages, yet I see people trying to sell ‘books’ that are only 20 or 30 pages… they aren’t books, they are, at best, poorly written short stories and should never be priced at more than .99 as an eBook)
  • edit so well that there are almost no errors (I often look at books written by people here and in the ‘look inside’, the first pages are filled with errors and that will turn off readers – you are unlikely to get sales if they spot errors and awkwardness on those first pages.)
  • have a great cover not one ‘you had a go at making yourself’
  • write in a series and publish close together so readers can read all of them one after the other – if they like the first one, they will read the rest. If they like the first one and you don’t have the rest of the series published, they’ll forget about it.
  • market well… that usually means spending money.
  • repeat, repeat, repeat. If you’ve done all this, by the time you publish 15 – 25 books, you’ll be making good money (not millions, but an income). BUT IF YOU DON’T WRITE WELL, YOU WILL NOT MAKE MONEY FROM WRITING.
  • Have integrity and be honest. Don’t do review swaps or pay for reviews or try and scam people into buying your book with sad-stories to make people pity you (I am genuinely sorry for those with real issues, but most people trying to sell books based on a ‘sad story’ are con artists, and it’s difficult to judge the genuine sad stories from all the liars). Having good reviews can help a book be noticed BUT if it’s not a good book and it has good reviews, readers will report it to Amazon and you may be removed from the platform. There are plenty of books of one- and two-star quality that have several fake five-star reviews as the authors think it will help sales BUT it makes genuine readers angry and they report those books all the time.
Good luck. Writing is an art. Learn it. Respect it. Love it. There’s probably only one chance in a million that you will be good enough to become wealthy from writing, and that’s only if you do all the years of hard work to become a great writer first. Do the hard work.

Maniacal

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Yes, yes, I beat your baby…

In the course of normal conversation, the kind you have with the clerk you know at the local convenience store, I was recently asked; “What are you up to?”. I replied that I was working on an action script for a small production company.

“I could do that. I’m really good at telling stories.”, he responded.

I said, “Hey, you should go for it.”, payed my bill, and left with a smile.

That’s encouragement, and I give it for free, every chance I get.

I know a shitload of good story tellers, and telling stories is a big part of screenwriting. Unfortunately, telling a good story isn’t the only part of writing a screenplay. For one thing, writer’s write. For another thing, screenplays are quite different from a novel or a short story. There are all these pesky rules about format and such. And of course, structure, dialogue, pacing, tension, and a host of other considerations. If you want to be a fireman, you have to learn to put out fires. If you want to write screenplays, you have to learn how to do more than just tell a story.

For a screenplay to come to reality on the screen, a whole lot of other people are going to get involved, and someone is going to have to pay for all this. It’s a huge investment in time and money, and a great risk. With thousands of ‘stories’ and scripts to choose from, yours had better be the cream of the crop.

Today I want to talk a little bit about foreshadowing.
What the hell is it? It’s a means by which you give the audience ‘clues’ as to where the story is going, and possible future events. It’s a dot in a connect the dots picture, maybe seeming unimportant alone, but a part of the bigger picture. The importance of that dot is likely not known until it’s connected to others. In Star wars, Luke practices using a light saber against a small orb. Later in the film, Luke must face the death star, a much bigger version of this same small orb. This is an object, or symbol that is used to foreshadow a future event.

Foreshadowing can be accomplished in any number of ways; dialogue, events, prophecy, objects, actions, dreams or visions. It can be quite simple, such as a sign at the entrance of a cave that reads “Stay Out” over a crudely drawn skull and crossbones.

In Seven, Morgan Freedman tells Brad Pitt early on that ‘these kinds of cases never have a happy ending’. No shit. This is foreshadowing via dialogue, and makes the big reveal later more palatable. The audience, either consciously or not, is more prepared for the shock.

Foreshadowing is, at its core, exposition, and as with all exposition, should be subtle and mostly hidden, even while being apparent and a natural part of the scene. It is when the payoff occurs later that the importance clicks in on some level of understanding.

But I digress. This blog isn’t about teaching you how to foreshadow. It’s about me complaining about writers that think they are foreshadowing, but these ‘seeds’ are planted so deeply, and are so obtuse, that the connection is made only in the writer’s mind.

I can’t tell you how many times a writer has come back to me and said, “well that’s what this event was for. You see how it foreshadowed this?”. If after reviewing a thousand scripts, I don’t see the connection, there is likely a large segment of your audience that won’t either.

If you have an Easter egg hunt for 5 year olds, you don’t bury an egg in an old well, cover it with branches and tires, and then .take great delight in the fact that none of those stupid little kids found the egg you hid. That kind of misses the point doesn’t it?

The same is true when you foreshadow in a script. You plant the idea that allows the audience to connect the dots later and feel good about ‘figuring things out’. Planting it deeper than the audience can dig doesn’t make you Sherlock Holmes. You live with your story and the characters and the plot for months. Your audience lives in this world you create for a couple hours. You don’t gain anything by making your audience feel stupid.

Remember always that a failure of the audience to ‘get it’, is the writer’s failure, not the audiences.

This doesn’t mean make it obvious. Nobody wants to be hit over the head repeatedly to drive your point home.

Consider a husband and wife in a very difficult relationship that both want out of. He is at the sink, washing dishes, as she clears the table and harasses him for his crude behavior at dinner.

“He rinses the knife, glances at it, runs his thumb along the sharp edge before placing it in the strainer.”

If the wife ends up with her throat slit later, we have an idea of who did it, and when the plan was first germinated. This may or may not be the case, but the seed is planted and can be pruned to our needs as the story unfolds.

If the husband simply does the dishes and the writer believes this alone will be enough to foreshadow the later murder simply because a knife was part of the dishes, the audience is likely never going to make any such connection. The seed is too deep to be related. The connection exists only in the mind of the writer.

On the other hand…
“He takes the knife firmly in hand, turns to his wife, his veins bulging, his eyes a fire of hate and disgust. His hand trembles as he watches her bend over the table, wiping away the crumbs. His breath labored, he takes a step toward her before regaining control of his emotions and turning back to the sink.”…
is a bit of overkill. We get it, but so would the 5 year old hunting for Easter eggs.

Know your audience. Tease them with possibilities that make sense, without spelling everything out, but don’t bury a clue so deeply that nobody finds it. And if you do, don’t blame them.

Mixing Story Types

I have talked before about the idea of a ‘contract of expectations’. This is not a brilliant new idea of my own, but simply a phrase I latched on to, that may reasonably be called something else, and no doubt is. My epiphany of understanding this concept came from a book by Orson Scott Card, one of my favorite writers. The book itself was about writing fiction stories, not screenplays in particular, but the concept really opened my eyes in terms of helping me understand how to construct a satisfying story in the form of a screenplay.

A major aspect of that contract of expectations is determining the type of story it is going to be, and in thus doing, making certain promises to the audience. This is part of setting expectation. I have also written elsewhere about types, but this blog is more about how to set up the type, and consequently the expectation, and moreover, to show that various types can exist within a single story (and often do, making it stronger), but that the basic type is that which forms the promise you make with the audience.

Let’s start with a brand new story.


FADE IN:
INT. BAR – NIGHT

A MAN, heavyset, thinning hair, worn work clothes, slumps over the bar. His fat ass perches on the stool, prevents him from collapsing to the floor. His hand clutches his drink, but it is spilled. The drink makes a pool on the bar, mixes with the Man’s saliva.

The BARTENDER, a tall thin man in his early thirties, stares in disbelief, eyes wide as saucers.

A half dozen CUSTOMERS crowd around, curious, surprised, and alarmed.

BARTENDER
“Jesus Christ”

One of the Customers, a shaky construction worker, glances from the Man to the Bartender.

SHAKY CONSTRUCTION WORKER
“Is he dead?”

BARTENDER
“As the fucking glass he’s holding.”

DREAM SEQUENCE – AGELESS MAN INTERRUPTS
What the hell type of story is this? Yes, you in back… What? Event type? How do you figure that? The guy is dead at the bar, yes, but is that an event that throws off the balance of the world, or in some way is an injustice that we must somehow deal with?… You, the girl in red, what do you think? Idea type? Hmm. Possibly… You, the guy with glasses and a crew cut. What do you think?… Character?… Interesting…

What is it that we know so far? That we are in a bar, seems to be a working class clientele. There is a dead man at the bar, still holding his spilled drink… Anything else? No, not really, and because of that, it’s still too early to determine what type of story is it. Has there been any promise made to us in terms of where we are going? No. Do we have any reason to think this story is going to be about the bar itself, or the environment? No. So we might surmise this is not a milieu type story, since there is nothing out of the ordinary in terms of the setting, but that still leaves us not yet knowing what type of story it is. And, without knowing the type of story, we do not yet have any expectations of what the story promises. But we are close to having to make such a promise, and the next sequence will likely set that path. Let’s take a look at how, by throwing out a few potential follow ups. The first will take us in the most unlikely of directions, setting this up as a possible milieu type.

BACK TO SCENE
A blue light fills the bar. The Customers and Bartender exchange fearful glances. Some squeal with trepidation. A black hole forms in the center of the room, the blue mist spinning around it. Objects in the room vibrate, begin to move. Glasses on the bar, pocketbooks, napkins, all are violently sucked toward the forming vortex. The people resist, hold the bar. Their feet are sucked out from under them, their hands lose grip. One by one they are sucked across the room and disappear into the hole.

BACK TO AGELESS MAN
Now then, this might lead us to another dimension, and the story may well focus on this strange new land or environment, becoming a milieu, as our focus is centered on the examination of this new land. Were it to do so, it would be a pretty weak way to start, because the dead man plays no purpose, and is therefore not needed in our story. We all know we should trim out things that aren’t needed because they simply distract from our story. But the fact remains, we made no promise regarding the dead man, and have thus not cheated our audience. Let’s disregard that last ‘back to scene’, and try another…

BACK TO SCENE

One of the Customers chokes, grabs his throat, eyes wide. He falls to the floor as the other customers first watch fearfully, then one by one suffer the same effects.

The Bartender, looking over the sudden sea of dead customers, races to the door, runs into the street.
Horror! Dead people line the streets. Cars are wrecked into signs, buildings, other cars. Steam pours from the hood of the nearest car, a lamppost bent over it . A COUPLE falls to their knees, gasping for breath before falling prone. The Bartender frantically takes in the nightmarish scene.

BACK TO AGELESS MAN
Tada! Event type! Now we have made a promise. To discover what has thrown the world into such imbalance, and probably to try and restore the natural order. But scratch that. Let’s try this instead.

BACK TO SCENE

The Bartender pulls the empty glass from the man’s hand, rubs his finger inside. He sniffs his finger, touches it with his tongue, spits.

BARTENDER
“Poisoned.”

BACK TO AGELESS MAN
Idea type! In this case, a mystery. At this point, we are effectively promised that someone killed this Man, and by extension, that the story will answer the question(s) posed. Who did it, and why. But screw that. Let’s try another approach.

BACK TO SCENE
INT. HOUSE/DINING ROOM – DAY
MARGARET BAXTER, mid thirties, tired looking, frail, with prematurely greying hair hanging loosely to her shoulders, sits at a table in front of a stack of bills. She holds one shakily in her hands. It reads:
“Eviction” at the top.
MARGARET
(sotto)
“God damn you and your heart attack, Gary. You always took the easy way out.”

BACK TO AGELESS MAN
Where are we now? What type of story will this be and what promises have been made? Character. The death of the Man obviously impacts his wife, who is now left alone to face the problems they shared. We don’t yet know the extent of those problems, or if they will be solved or not, but we have been given an inherent promise. That the death of the Man in the bar is going to cause Change in this character, and that change will likely be the focus of the story.

Now then. Where can we go from here? Does the ‘type’ of story preclude our use of elements more central to other types? No, not at all. The type simply sets the expectations of the audience by making a promise. That promise is based on the Predominant type of the story.

The Bartender, in the event driven style we layed out, can change in the course of the story unfolding, adding another dimension to the story and giving it more depth and interest, but he doesn’t have to change in order to fulfill the stories promise, and moreover, his change should never change the type or promise that we made part of the contract. If the Bartender goes on to become a changed man, and the focus of the story is on his change, never satisfyingly addressing the event and imbalance of the world by the sudden death of all these people, the audience will rightfully be pissed off. If, on the other hand, the character ‘arcs’ and changes because of, or in direct relation to overcoming the imbalance in the world and trying to restore order, this strengthens the story.

Moral of the story… Be sure you know what predominant type story you are telling, and use other types to strengthen and bolster the telling of the tale. Never forget the expectations you set for the audience. It is invariably true that the audiences dissatisfaction will be assured if you fail to fulfill the promises you make setting up the type of story.

3 Acts. Does it make sense?

As usual, take what sticks, feels right, and helps you become a better writer, and leave the rest… pretend I didn’t even say it.

I have seen articles about 4 act stories, 5 acts, hell, 7 acts! What’s the poor viewer to do when talking about the movie with his friends?
Todd: “Remember that 6th murder? That was so cool.”
Evan: “The one in the third act?”
Todd: “After that, before the end… Act 6 I think.”

The only true part of that exchange is Todd, when he says “…before the end.”
Now granted, most typical movie viewers don’t look at it in terms of acts at all. That’s for the story tellers. Instead, they will relate to the beginning, the end, or something in between. Here’s a clue to that something in between. It’s the middle. Second act.

It’s where all hell breaks loose. We walked up the steep stairs, looked out over the roller coaster, and buckled ourselves into the seat. Now, it’s the ride, and it doesn’t stop until we get to the end. The journey is on and there’s no turning back. You talked us into taking this trip, and you promised a few basic things before we get to the end.

You can put twists and turns in the track, ups and downs, even total loop dee loos. Hell, we hope for it. You can make it slow or fast, run it through thick or thin, light or dark, funny or sad.

But… you do promise not to take the car off the track, and, in the end, to deliver us to the promised destination..

The 3 act structure wasn’t designed by man. It was observed by him.
Stories were the first real form of communication, and always have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This simple fact is recognized in screenwriting as the 3 Act Structure, and not only does the entire story fit within it, but in a good screenplay, every element will obey this common sense truth. Every scene starts, has something happen (the beat), and ends, pointing us forward to the next 3 act construct. Every act is built upon a number of smaller 3 act pieces.

Where is the confusion? Twists and turns. Plans and failures. Too many hard and fast untrue rules. Each act has its own 3 acts, and those are constructed from even smaller 3 acts. Every subplot, every character, every action paragraph can easily be thought of and constructed using the same structure. Setup, Act, End. Open, Tell, Close. Describe, Act, Complete. Beginning, Middle, and End. It’s natural.

A caveman and his woman that he found are in the entrance to a cave. There are beautiful flowers beside the entrance, side by side with aged and dying flowers. The caveman looks curiously at the flowers, picking a living one, and a dead one, compares them. He is enraptured by the beauty of the living rose, and devastated by the death of the other one. He wrestles with this newfound knowledge. He notices his cave-woman wife wiping something on her leg. It leaves a bright stain, the color of the flower.  He looks at the stain, the flower, the smooth stone of the cave entrance. He gets an idea, sees a possibility, evaluates his options. He sets a goal, makes a decision.

That’s act one within the context of this simple example.

But look at the action so far. It’s already done its own 3 acts. How so? First, the beginning. We set up what is. A cave. Flowers. Cave couple. Obviously he’s a thinking and compassionate man, contemplating life and death with the simple vision of flowers. Ok, what happens?

This changes his life, rocks his world. It can’t be that life is so brief, beauty so short lived, death so final. He is crushed and defeated by this realization, wrestles with it, denies it, but ultimately must deal with it. He can simply ignore it, or he can work and toil to somehow change it, or at the least improve upon the condition, overcoming obstacles along the way. He imagines a way to overcome this loss of beauty and make it last forever.

And how does it end? He makes a decision and sets a goal.Yeah, I know. I hear you. Isn’t that a basic component of the first act? Why yes, yes it is. So then how can it be the third act of this miniature 3 act sequence? Because this mini story was about an event (the epiphany of the flowers we’ll call it) that changes the caveman in a very deep way, and the payoff at the end, the part we are all waiting for, is what decision he will make. Making that decision, whatever it is, is the end of that story, but only a small thing in service to the larger story, in which this entire 3 act story is just one of many within the first act in the main story.

In Act 2 of the larger story–

He goes to his cave-woman wife, wipes the stain from her leg, puts his stained fingers in her face, and grunts, with a nod of the head, looking between his fingers and her eyes.

Maybe she doesn’t get it, looks at him stupidly, or more likely, as if he was stupid. What does he do? Maybe pulls her hair, slaps her around some, and tries the same approach. It will continue to fail no matter how many tries he makes, because nothing changed. She doesn’t get now what she didn’t get when previously given the same treatment. So, new plan, same goal.

He drags her to the wall, uses his fingers to wipe some of the stain onto the rock, draws an outline of her dull witted head and puts a question mark over it… 

No matter. He keeps on trying. Why? Not because it’s his goal. He’s a freakin caveman we made up. He keeps trying because we know what the goal is, and it’s now OUR goal. We want that damn flower drawn on the rock, where it won’t die. In the end, the caveman has to succeed.

Not only that, he has to finally succeed by his own change, brought about in his struggle. It is by overcoming his own weaknesses (in this case, communicating with his ditzy wife in order to find where the paint comes from) that WE feel satisfied.


* Yes, I know. He doesn’t have to succceed. He could be eaten by a freakin mammoth or something as his homemade brush takes its first dip into his hard won paint. But I like happy endings, ok?

So then, if everything works from this same basic 3 act structure, where do all these other ‘acts’ come from I keep hearing about? Mislabeling, or misunderstanding the full purpose and scope of each act.

For example, people will point to a movie that starts with a seemingly bizzarre or shocking scene before going to the traditional first act introduction, and consequently feel this must be somehow unrelated to the first act. Its not. The first act is ‘In the beginning’. If that’s how you begin, then by golly it’s in the first act. It is in this sense that I think certain ‘untrue rules’ cloud the issue. People think of the first act as setting up and showing us the ‘normal’ world, before anything happens to cause change. Introduce characters, circumstances, situations. And if this opening scene doesn’t ‘fit’ that rule, they mistakenly believe it can’t be a part of the first act. It is, because it’s how you chose to start, which is always in the first act by simple logic. Moreover, people often forget a major component of the first act, which is quite simply “Setting up expectations“. A huge burden of the fist act, introduction, if you prefer, is setting up the expectations of the audience, and frankly, unless that’s why you put the scene in the beginning, you screwed up.

Meeting the expectations set up at the start is critical for your script, and encompasses enough variants to demand its own blog. So let me just say briefly, that IMHO, if you fail to set expectations, establish your underlying theme, the genre, the tone, and the type of story you are telling, then you aren’t going to tell the story as effectively as you could.

What about twisted endings where we think the movie is over, but then goes on? Let’s assume you are not speaking of the typical denouement, which basically re-establishes the new world and is part and parcel of the third act, but rather a seeming answer to the question posed or goal set previously. In other words, you thought your expectations were reached, but damn, it keeps going. Isn’t this another act?

No, not if you think about it in terms of beginning, middle, and end. If it’s not at the end, it’s not in the third act, or is simply a false end that sets you up again. Or, the piece you thought at first was the ending, is just another sequence in the second act, and there remained something to be learned before the final victory. Regardless, the end is always at the end, and the end is act 3.

How many false endings, or miniature 3 act sequences or plans can there be? There is no set number, but more than a few ‘twists and turns’ that lead to false conclusions will invariably alienate your audience, who will feel trifled with and unsatisfied.

Think of the guy in American Werewolf in London. He wakes from a scary dream, in his hospital room. Holy shit. Suddenly the nurse is a monster and he wakes again! A dream within a dream. Pretty cool. It demonstrated a false ending to the 3 act structure of that specific scene, and it worked. But how many levels deep could it have gone? No more. If he had wakened from yet another dream, everything good about it would have been trashed. The first time, you got me. Do it again, and you’re just making fun of me.
 
That is not to limit the obstacles, raising the stakes, or building suspense and tension I’m talking about. Read it carefully. A failed attempt or a new obstacle does not give a sense of ending.

Indeed, each of these plans or attempts are inherently 3 act structures themselves, usually the end of one melding into the first act of another (much the same way a denouement does). .Each begins with a situation (perhaps the utter failure of the last attempt), demands a decision, takes action, and then is resolved, maybe successfully and finally, or in failure, maybe leading to another plan, serving to set the basis for the first act of the next attempt.

Carl enters a house, his eyes frantically scan. He spots a table, hurries to it, rifles through the drawers. He frowns, looks around the room, spots a knick knack shelf. He walks to it, takes a small piece of paper from beneath a bauble, reads it. He hurries to the door.

A 3 act structure? We establish Carl is looking for something, makes a decision, sets a goal. Act 1 over. Carl executes his plan. Act 2 done. Carl finds what he wanted. Success. The end.

Still not convinced? I see two 3 act structures there. In splitting this in two, act 3 is when Carl executes his plan and fails. He frowns, defeated. The end. Now Act 1 of the second 3 act structure. Starts the same. Carl’s situation, goal, and plan are made obvious. He executes the plan, finds success. The end. Situation, action, resolution. Bang bang bang. 3 acts.

What’s the point of all this? Simply this.
The 3 act structure wasn’t designed by man. It was observed by him.
Use the basic 3 act structure as your ‘atom’, regardless of what you are building or how incredibly complex you view your story overall.

As I often told students when teaching computer programming, “At its core, a computer only knows two states and is not to be feared. It is man that has shown the ability to resolve the most complex problems imaginable through a series of yes or no questions that make computers seem so smart.”

P.S. Yes, the caveman finally painted a flower on the cave wall. In the sequel, he discovered the rain washed it away. Stay tuned.