HOW TO WRITE A MOVIE
Let’s discuss some fundamental techniques of movie writing. You may wonder why we didn’t mention all these before the reason is, you probably handled these techniques naturally. You’ve seen so many movies in your lifetime, you are an expert after all. We’ll just list them so you can use them in rewrite.
Talk is cheap except in movies. In movies, too much talk costs you.
It is not the character’s job to tell us the story. It’s your job. You need to show, not tell. The artful way you chose this character, in this place, saying these lines, shows us far more than any of these elements alone.
This is the day you’ll be dealing with exposition in your script. If at any time you stop action to give us information, look at how you do it. Are we seeing anything else in the scene? From page 10 to page 30 all your scenes should build one to the next, giving information about character and setting up the situation. The use of Act I is to set up all the new business. By page 30 we will have to be pretty much finished with new business. So handle it all here and reveal it to us by show, not tell.
DIALOGUE IS NOT CONVERSATION
Let’s take a line of dialogue, three words, and see how many stories it can tell. The line is, “Come on, Lou.” Now, you be the actor. Say the line as it would be said in each of these situations: Lou is an old dog, a puppy, the lead horse running the Kentucky Derby on which you’ve bet your life savings. Lou is a man, a woman, a boy, a girl, a human who wants to leave with aliens, a prizefighter on the mat, a prostitute, a crash victim dying in his friend’s arms.
Do you see that dialogue is a function of story? Three words can tell a whole story; all you have to do is choose their context. Look at your dialogue now. Where it doesn’t say enough, choose it again.
THERE IS NO INTROSPECTION IN MOVIES
We can see what the characters do. We can hear what they say. We can’t see or hear what they’re thinking unless there’s a voice-over narration (in which case we are told what they think). But guess what – that’s just like real life. The only person you know introspectively is yourself. So how in life do you pick up what somebody else is thinking?
HOW TO READ MINDS
Did anybody ever say to you, “I AM NOT ANGRY!!!”
Think of the ways in which you understood what was really being conveyed to you. What were the person’s true needs and wants? How did you know that? List twenty ways you knew, without being told directly, what the person was really feeling.
HOW TO READ DIALOGUE
Now that you are aware of at least twenty ways that character has been revealed to you, you can use those to reveal your characters. Just when we think nobody is listening, when we think we’re talking about something else, we will tell the deepest truth about ourselves.
Here’s an example: I was conducting a writer’s workshop at a prison. There was one inmate who hadn’t spoken all day. I said, “How do you feel about that, Gerald?” Suddenly it was as thought he room gasped. I got the collective message “Don’t mess with Gerald.”
I asked him how he felt when he was alone in his cell at night trying to write his story. He thought he was telling about his writer’s block. He described how it was choking him. He couldn’t breathe. It stopped his blood. And yet the blood rushed. A glaze came over his eyes and he stood up and spoke in loud, disjointed words. He held his pencil in his fist and stabbed the air over and over again. I realized that he was describing the violent crime he had committed.
THE SPLIT-SECOND STORY
Last Thanksgiving with the family, what happened? Everybody gathered together, ate, watched football, did the dishes. But what was really going on?
Find the split-second story now (e.g., Dad sneaks a drink, Mother pretends to not see, drops the cranberries on daughter’s lap, daughter runs to her childhood room, sits in the rocker with her teddy bear of twenty years ago). Show us where to look.
REVEAL CHARACTER IN SMALL DETAILS
You will find that you will keep secrets about your hero. The other characters will be much clearer because they are outside you, but the hero will be less clear. This is because these things are obvious to you. Go ahead and reveal them. Keep telling the truth.
Q: I have a farce and I have twelve main characters to set up. What am I going to do?
A: Farce is unique in that it is all very tightly setup to springboard into the first payoff in Act II. Think of yourself as an expert juggler in a funny costume. Do the setting up in sight gags. Since farce relies on a nonsequitor, you can set up several characters and situations in one visual scene. Look at your first twenty pages. You might have three variations on each scene. Combine action and eliminate two of the three scenes. Tighten. You’ll have to have one-third the jokes and be three times as funny.
Q: All my characters talk too much. There’s no action. But I don’t think I’m telling the action instead of showing it. I just don’t know what action to give them.
A: If everybody’s uttering lofty concepts but can’t move, it is probably an issue story. It’s not about this man and this woman in this situation. Personalize it immediately. If they are talking at a restaurant and say, “People have no feelings, they’re afraid to be intimate.” They are talking about themselves! Throw them into action: Waiter spills flaming desert on Jackie. Jack grabs at Jackie to douse the flames. Her blouse disintegrates in his hands. Now let’s see what they do with the intimacy.
If you find yourself writing lofty speeches, go back to portraying how your hero is affected by his word. It is not your function as movie writer to save the world. The world is fine. Just be willing to contribute your one clear note to the symphony of life. That’s plenty enough.
OKAY, LET’S REWRITE
Look at your pages 10 through 30. Are you showing us everything we need to know? Is the main character in most of the scenes? This is our chance to see what his problem is. What’s his problem?
It’s especially important for the scenes to build one to the next. Look at your scenes. If any are similar, combine them and move the story along. Notice the pace of the scenes. Are they quick? Do you get in, take care of needed business, and get out? Or do you unravel information slowly – a little about him, a little about her until they meet in the subway on page 30. Whatever the pace, is it building? Is it how you want it?
Here’s the nature of pages 10 to 30:
Think of the process of how you meet someone and they become your friend.
You are introduced. You get an initial impression. You have an idea of what he’s like. You talk briefly and find out a little about what he’d like for his life. You know ever little about him. But you know at least one thing. You know you like him (3rd party that you). That would be page 1 to 10 of a friendship.
Pages 10 to 30 could be your getting together and learning more about him. Friendships are often elusive in the beginning stages. You call each other; you can’t seem to find common time. When you suggest you meet at his house, he might be abrupt and hang up, and you don’t know why. Later, when you do get to know him and go to his house, you find he was embarrassed about it because it’s a dump. You also find yourself changing your opinion about him based on the further information that you’re getting. You were interested because you had questions about him. Now you’re interested because of the answers.
So that’s what Act I is – friendship. Let us get to know your character. Let us be his friend. ~~~~~~~~~~~
©Andrea Nicola Dodgson, 1971.