In the winter of 2009, in the middle of my master’s program, I took a film class called The Detective Story. It was an opportunity to indulge my love of tight narrative pacing and the baroque visuals of noir while at the same time pushing past purely formal concerns to think about cultural context and theoretical underpinnings. It planted a seed.
Meanwhile, I was fighting a tendency in myself, watching myself squander the creative potential of globally connected, omnipresent screens in favor of convenient consumerism and mindless Skinner-box consumption. And I was reading more and more news about government and corporate surveillance.
Those threads came together in a screenplay, begun in the nervous free time of my unemployment directly after graduate school and polished slowly afterward, just missing the quarterfinals of the world’s most prominent screenplay competition two years in a row before earning me a ticket to the Austin Film Festival last October as a semifinalist in their competition.
With feedback from Austin, as well as family and friends, I have given the screenplay one last polish and given myself permission to call it done. Framed combines my favorite parts of classic noir like The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past with the grungy near-future feel of Looper and Children of Men. It’s my most ambitious creative project to date.
I’ve put it on The Black List — one of the few, perhaps the only, legitimate online screenplay network, and I have published the first 11 pages here. I hope the script goes somewhere — screenplays are meant to be used, and I wrote a movie that I want to see — but at the moment I’m just enjoying the learning it represents.
Now on to the next one.
From the best episode of the podcast Scriptnotes, I keep coming back to this nugget from Craig Mazin about the “low point” that often comes at the end of the second act of a screenplay:
The low point isn’t always, “Oh boo-hoo me.” For me, the low point is the character has lost his way. The character is separated from the confidence that they had in the beginning of the movie that this is the way the world is and this is who I should be. They have not yet, however, gotten to a place that they will eventually get to where they have a reformulation of, “This is the way the world is and this is how I think I should be.”
I recently revised my sci-fi thriller screenplay and submitted it to the Nicholl and the Austin Film Festival. Here are some of the questions and resources that helped me as I rewrote.
- How long does your story last in the story world? I knew my screenplay was 107 pages long, but I had to make a story calendar to figure out we were watching the characters over five days. Before this latest revision, I hadn’t given a thought to whether that number was realistic, or merely convenient for me.
- Are you missing sluglines? When I was first learning how screenplays worked I thought sluglines were scene markers. Nope — they’re there to help map out different locations, and sometimes even individual shots, to help with readability and production. So if a scene happens half inside, half outside, you’d better have at least two sluglines in it. (Further reading: What is a slug?, Sensible sluglines)
- If you cut that scene/page/line, what would happen to the story? It doesn’t matter if the sentences in question are beautiful — if the story doesn’t suffer by omitting it, you should probably lose it. There were a couple times I trimmed an eighth of a page this way, and many more phrases here and there.
- Keeping reading screenplays. One that was particularly valuable for me while working on this current project was Rian Johnson’s Looper. I learned from him that writing the future doesn’t require pretending to be a Flash Gordon product designer. He writes, “Something like a HELICOPTER sweeps overhead” and “…fishes his phone-device from his pocket.” Unless it impacts story, it’s somebody else’s job to figure out what those things look like.
- Watch John August rewrite. I assume you’re already listening to Scriptnotes. Maybe you’ve read his blog. But you may not have found three screencasts he did a few years ago that I found as valuable as anything else he’s done. Watch over his shoulder as he revises three scenes, each with a different lesson: entering a scene, writing better action, and writing better scene description.
- Finally, pay attention to what’s good in the material you’ve cut and imagine your story from different points of view. Your next story might be hiding in the corner of this one.
If the screenplay is considered as not a text, but a prototype which attempts to anticipate the interactions between the audience and the future ﬁlm made from the script, then the insights of interaction design have a great deal to offer the practice and theory of writing for the screen.
File under connections between cinema and software.
But I want to get to this topic of theme […] That sense of, Rian’s movies certainly, and I think the movies that I’m proudest of that I’ve worked on, there’s this kind of fractal quality to it. They’re thematically whole enough that you could take any one scene from them and cut it out and like put it in nice fertile soil and it would grow into a shape of that movie.
Like genetically it’s all part of one consistent thing. And that’s a thing I definitely find in your films is that they’re all of one piece and there’s a central idea, a central thematic idea that is whole. And I find it very hard to start writing until I kind of know what that is. If I don’t have some touchstone to go back to, like this is what the movie feels like, this is what the movie is, it’s very hard to do that.
— John August, transcribed from Scriptnotes podcast 115
In a dispatch from the Vancouver International Film Festival, film scholar Kristin Thompson relates craft tips from screenwriter Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean):
Rossio is a big advocate of succinctly creating a strong visual sense in each scene. Even on Rossio’s desktop he comes up with a distinctive icon for each folder (see top): a Rubik’s cube for “Screenwriting,” a little gramophone for “Music,” and so on.
For Rossio, each scene should consist of:
- Opening image
- Key moment (character revelations, reversals, etc.)
- Throw (i.e., the setup for the next scene)
I love the mention of a desktop. What a good metaphor: each scene should have its icon.
Also, he takes the old question of whether writing can be taught, and the implication that if not you must be born with the it, and turns it on its head:
He feels that it is probably impossible to teach screenwriting: “No, the better question is, can writing be learned?” Yes, but people must teach themselves.
Ready for the best distillation of screenwriting manuals and the most concise critique of them that I have ever seen? In a short slide deck, Eric Hoyt, Assistant Professor of Media & Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, compares the prescriptive three act structure that Hollywood hopefuls are told to follow with the four act structure that film scholar Kristin Thompson uses to describe the commonalities of dozens of well-crafted films.
View Hollywood Storytelling: 3 Act or 4 Act Structure?