First Acts

I’m working on the first act of a new feature-length comedy screenplay, and my screenwriter’s group is going to take a look at it in a few days. I want it to be sharp, so I’m reviewing the elements of a first act.

Of course, the most important elements to include in a first act are distinct, interesting characters, a clear overall tone and the vivid world of the story. Or at least the world as it is normally, before big changes start to occur. I’ve also been trying to ensure my main character’s flaws and needs are clear and that the stakes are big enough to drive the story forward. I want the first 10 or so pages to really hook the reader and to deliver an inciting incident that forces the characters down a path towards change. The major turning point comes at the end of the first act, about a half hour into the movie, so it’s critical to set the story up correctly. Since I’m writing a comedy, I also want to lay down some track that will be funny later in call-backs. Simple, huh? Not.

Screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin discussed first acts on one of their podcasts. This is how Mazin described the first act:

…I find that this first act is the most important act of a movie. It’s the most interesting act, for me. We’re creating a world. We’re building a world in the first act. We’re creating a person. We’re then introducing a problem. And then we’re pushing that person right to the edge of the nest and finally flicking them out.

I also like how Mazin said, “Everything that you do in that first act has to have a purpose and that purpose must pay off. The bud must blossom at some point in the script, or it shouldn’t be there.” This is a good reminder to tighten up those scenes and take out all that’s extraneous. Mazin also pointed out how important a solid first act is to comedy. “Comedy is about the human condition. And so we need that first act desperately to meet somebody, establish who they are, establish what they believe. Kind of soak them in it for awhile.”

I’m really glad I’ll have some fresh eyes looking over what I have so far. Sometimes it’s hard to see things clearly when you are so close to it. I welcome the coming feedback. Hopefully my first act will keep everyone on the edge of their seat, wanting more and laughing so hard, they wish they’d brought along a Depends.

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The Game of the Scene

In improv, the distilled premise that’s funny in a scene is known as the game. Writer and actor Brett Wean does a nice job in this Scriptmag article of explaining how the game and other improvisational tools can be useful to screenwriters. I agree that exploring one central idea is essential, be it in a comedic or dramatic scene. A strong central focus is the glue of a scene. Exploring too many different ideas in one scene dilutes the overall impact.

A useful resource for screenwriters wishing to further explore improv and comedy writing is The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. The book discusses finding the game, heightening the game, and using an established premise in scenes. Also included are suggestions about creating characters, scenes improvisers avoid, and descriptions of various improv show formats. Some of the tips included for improvised scenes are also great to consider in scripted scenes:

1. Don’t Talk About the Thing. And Don’t Talk About What You Are Doing. In a scene, the relationship dynamics are more interesting than the “thing” that is happening. For example, if two characters are breaking up at a ballgame, we would most likely rather hear about the breakup than about the details of the game.

2. Don’t Talk About Characters Who Are Not There. The scene is between the characters we are watching. If you find yourself mentioning other characters, it might be time for a scene about those other characters.

And 3.  Don’t Talk About The Past and Future. What’s happening between the two characters right now? That’s what’s interesting. If you find yourself mentioning past or future events, it might be time for a flashback or flash-forward.

Lessons from improv are useful to screenwriters. Just as improvisers search to find a funny game in their scenes, screenwriters must also find a central focus. A strong central core is the backbone of an effective scene.

 

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Reading Between the Lines

I’ve been performing more frequently with some improv troupes, and the lessons I learn about story and writing are invaluable. The immediate feedback from audiences is so informative. It really helps me understand the kinds of plot twists and situation heightening that people enjoy.

For example, a few days ago I was in a show where a character was reminiscing about a Christmas from his youth and how a puppy was waiting in a box under his tree. I tagged out his scene partner and became his mother handing him a Christmas present in flashback. “Here’s your Christmas present, son.” “Should I open it?” he said. “Sure, go ahead. But you have been shaking that box a whole lot…” I was ready to continue my lines, but I had to pause for quite a while for the audience to finish laughing.

What was funny about this scene? The surprise, for sure. Everyone initially expected the boy to receive a live puppy. But also I think it was funny because the audience had to put the ideas together themselves to figure out what was happening. I didn’t explicitly state that there was a shaken puppy inside the box. On their own, the audience was asked to recall the puppy idea and then figure out what a shaken box might mean. When the audience makes the connections themselves, it’s funnier.

That idea of subtext, reading between the lines, is commonly recommended to screenwriters. It works in drama, as well as in comedy. And I think we all experience in everyday life, how connections are more meaningful when we make them ourselves. It’s the reason therapists say things like, “What does that remind you of?” or “How does that make you feel?” When we come up with associations on our own, it is powerful. So as writers and story-tellers, we need to remember to allow the reader/audience to make those connections. Surprises are great. And reading between the lines is half of the fun.

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Intriguing Characters

I enjoyed the conversation between Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange is the New Black) and Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise, Nashville) on the “Heroine’s Journey” panel at the Austin Film Festival.

Though known for their strong female characters, both writers said that they seek to create interesting characters of both genders. And to illustrate how deeply flawed humans are, by including both good and bad attributes. Characters are not likeable in every moment. Heroes are made; they don’t start out heroic. They must journey to get to where they need to be.

In Orange is the New Black, it was the imposed mixing of characters of all stripes behind prison walls that initially intrigued Kohan. The backstory scenes in the show give us a glimpse behind the mask the characters wear in prison. And the humor found even within the drama reflects real life. Khouri was drawn to the specificity of Nashville.

Other tips for writing intriguing characters? Delve into the character. Listen to what they have to say. Know the lies they are telling themselves. Write a human being.

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Advice from Shane Black

Shane Black was full of tips and quips at his “Script-to Screen: KISS KISS BANG BANG” session at the Austin Film Festival today.

He shared how his process for developing a film idea begins with envisioning the shape the film will take — keeping in mind the overall vision of the movie, how the trailer will look, the set pieces in the movie, the feelings generated. Then the chipping away begins to reveal the final form.

He stressed that the story must remain grounded and realistic at the start in order to establish believability. For a murder mystery, reality is emphasized with a layered sense of sadness. The murder then comes as a discordant note in an already believable world. He mentioned the “rosebud moment” that should occur within the violence – a poignancy underneath it all. “The ultimate desperation in lives of desperate sadness” revealed.

Black said his scene descriptions give the flavor of action, evoking the pace and how the scene should feel when it is ultimately viewed. He read aloud some artfully-constructed examples. A common query he gets: whether he writes the action or merely lets the stunt guys “figure it out.” So his playful rendition of a final action sequence from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, had everyone laughing: “Coffin falls. Bunch of shit happens. Stunt guys take over.” On top of being very encouraging to the writers in attendance, Black kept the audience very amused.

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AFF Comedy Tips

So I’ve been bustling around the 2013 Austin Film Festival, wishing I had either a clone or a Harry Potter-esque time turner so I could take in more of the conference. But I thought I’d take a moment to share some comedy writing insights I gleaned from “The Kings of Sit-Comedy” panel with Lee Aronsohn (co-creator of Two and a Half Men), Phil Rosenthal (creator of Everybody Loves Raymond), and Peter Mehlman (writer/co-executive producer of Seinfeld).

Mehlman and Rosenthal emphasized how simplicity can lead to great results. Mehlman wrote his episodes for Seinfeld based on very simple premises. His advice: keep the concept simple. When he pitched ideas to Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, he always managed to do it with one sentence. Similarly, Rosenthal always envisioned Everybody Loves Raymond as an uncomplicated little play, with very few scene cuts. He wanted each scene to captivate the audience’s attention and interest. Rosenthal described the essentials of a sitcom in three parts – the premise, act break, and conclusion (beginning, middle, end). This, he said, is the structure on which the sitcom story is built.

Rosenthal and Aronsohn both had tips for writer’s block. Rosenthal suggested the starter: “What would really happen?” to help generate story ideas. “Try real as a road to go on,” he advised. Aronsohn suggested writers look “on the edges of the scene” for inspiration. For example, while a scene is occurring in one room, what’s going on with other characters in the adjacent rooms? If all else fails, Aronsohn pointed out that watching bad comedy can bolster your own confidence as a writer.

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He Said, She Said

Bad dialogue in a book or movie is like a sour note in a song. It separates you from the reverie of the story experience. So what is it about good dialogue that makes it good? A discussion on the Black Board forums got me thinking about this. Contributors to the discussion point out that some bad lines cannot be saved, even by the best actors. And definitely not by a lesser actor. The humorous example given? It’s a scene from a 1987 movie called Tough Guys Don’t Dance. See for yourself.

TV comedy writer Ken Levine says that good dialogue has a rhythm and flow to it. Each character speaks in his or her own unique way. And they often avoid directly saying what they want.

I also like the dialogue tips found here and here. Both authors mention that good dialogue is unexpected, surprising, and richer than ordinary conversation. I know the lines I typically remember are those that express the character’s sentiment in the scene perfectly and also are stated creatively, or in a way I’ve never heard before. It’s probably wise to bear in mind that boring characters don’t say clever, interesting things. So good characters and good dialogue are really companions to each other.

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Welcome Back to Oakwilt Elementary

 
 
   Oakwilt Elementary School
A Dare Not to Discipline,
Ain’t Great to Hate School

 

Dear Parents,

Greetings Oakwilt Osprey! As Principal, let me be the first to welcome you back.

First, an important reminder that we are a nut-free school. We ask that you respect the manifold allergies and sensitivities of our students by also not sending gluten, milk, meat, vegetable, or fruit products in your child’s lunch box. And due to one student’s extreme Polynomial Phobia, we will be avoiding math or anything numerical in the classroom. You can take this matter up with the school board if you have any concerns.

In your child’s daily contact binder, please locate the 75-page parent packet which needs to be completed and turned in by tomorrow. A parent homework training packet is to follow. You will need to take the online “Homework Helper” training course and pass the test by the end of the week. At Oakwilt, we strongly believe in parent involvement. Using the “Free-Form” teaching method, our teachers like to spend each day gently introducing the idea of learning to your children, while you are urged to follow up with full instruction and testing at home. All textbooks are online, so please log in to the website for each book and begin familiarizing yourself with the material.

In other housekeeping, if you pre-ordered a packet of school supplies, your child has received them and will already need some name-brand replacement items. (Please avoid prolonged skin contact with the provided erasers!) Your child’s teacher will provide you with an additional 50-item supply list specific to class needs. A big shout-out to Suzie Golden for coordinating school supplies!

Speaking of Suzie Golden. If you haven’t already met her, Suzie is our Parent Or Teachers Together for You (PoTTy) President. Suzie is in charge of volunteer sign-ups. She will stand posted at the entry/exit door for the first two weeks of school, where she will work tirelessly to steer you to a volunteer slot that you are best suited for. Be assured there is a place for everyone. However, certain preferred positions have been pre-assigned by Suzie Golden. If you desire one of these slots, you can attend the thrice-weekly PoTTy meetings throughout the year to discuss it. For those of you with jobs or other conflicts, let me remind you that the direction of your children’s future is in your hands. As we like to say at Oakwilt, put aside your own needs, be it financial or otherwise, and always “Konsider your Kids” first! We feel it is never too early to instill a healthy dose of parental guilt.

(As a side note, please do not approach Suzie Golden, unless your presence has first been acknowledged by her. Also, unless you are Suzie Golden, do not ask for a change in classroom placement. Class assignments were determined through super-secret testing and formulas which are not available for your viewing. Unless you are Suzie Golden.)

We believe each child who walks in the door at Oakwilt is perfect just the way he or she is, and we wouldn’t dream of asking a student to change. Our teachers will happily accommodate all student misbehaviors and outbursts by asking parents to step in, while they take a  “refreshment” break. We are a place where children form lasting friendships. As such, “best friend” proclamations and bullying behaviors such as hugs and high-fives are not allowed. In an effort to focus on social skills, there will be no talking allowed at lunch. Since we are achievement-oriented, we do not assign grades but instead employ a scale of slightly-varied happy faces. We want to create in each student a desire to succeed. So please remind your child not to brag about receiving a double-smiley on a paper.

If you have any further questions or needs, please know that I have an “open” door policy, and parents are always welcome, provided that they have a current parent pass and that they enter the building during the prescribed five minute time period allotted daily. If you need a pass, you may apply with Prunella Crabbs in the front office. She will require three forms of ID, an FBI background check, two letters of reference, and a bottle of Boone’s Farm.

Once again, I welcome you to Oakwilt. I can’t wait to wave you on in the car line. Keep those cars moving expeditiously along east to west. And have a great year!

Your Principal,

Mrs. Snootwell

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Tuning Up: Writing Voice and Opening Lines

Ahem. La la la la la la la. Pardon. Just finding my voice there –

Good interview with Stephen King in The Atlantic about the importance of opening lines and having a unique voice. What is a writer’s voice? According to King, voice is more than style. It is what readers look for, above and beyond genre.

“A novel’s voice is something like a singer’s — think of singers like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, who have no musical training but are instantly recognizable. When people pick up a Rolling Stones record, it’s because they want access to that distinctive quality. They know that voice, they love that voice, and something in them connects profoundly with it.”

King also talks about how the opening sentence clues us into a writer’s style, while taking us right into the action and (hopefully) simultaneously luring us into the story.

King’s favorite opening line?

It’s from Douglas Fairbairn’s novel, Shoot–“This is what happened.”

His own favorite first line?

It’s from Needful Things–“You’ve been here before.”

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ScriptShark Gives My Screenplay a Thumbs-Up

ScriptShark recently gave a CONSIDER to my screenplay, Cooler Than You Think, and promoted it in their monthly Scouting Report. Nice to receive some recognition!

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