A Screenplay in 70 Days – Week Two

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Welcome back. If you completed Week One you should have a couple of characters, a Log Line as well as a long list of possible scenes. This week we’re going to develop more of the characters as well as building goals for the Hero to push for. So get your notes ready and let’s get started.

Week Two – January 12 – January 18, 2014

Day One – Character Flaws
All of your characters should have at least one key flaw. It is this flaw that will drive a great deal of the conflict in your story. A great flaw drives both internal and external conflict. A Hero who has a ‘selfish’ flaw may have internal battles about whether to stick his neck out for another character or his ‘one-man army’ attitude gets in way of the team’s effort in completing the task. Hero flaws often have to do with a fear of something and at some point in the story he will need to face and overcome his fear. Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes for example. Often a successful flaw comes from one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Ebenezer Scrooge’s greed drove that city and lead to a character arc where he transformed his greed is generosity. Which leads to the next purpose of a character flaw, the character must face it or reverse it at the end of the second act. Greed becomes generosity or fear is overcome. This is the foundation of the character arc. Your Hero becomes a better person for going through the story.

The Hero is not the only character that requires a flaw. Giving the Villain and supporting cast flaws equal in proportion to their role in the story will not only give these characters depth but it will allow other characters to undergo a character arc as well. Darth Vader was evil. He would kill anyone who got in his way, but in the end his love for his son brought out the good in him and it was Vader who defeated the Emperor. Get creative with your character’s flaws and try to come up with ways in which the character’s flaw leads to the character’s arc. I’ve written about character flaws before in blog (March 4, 2012) and that article may help.

Day Two – Character Goals
Last week we used the Climax of your story to come up with the Central Question of your screenplay. This is the ultimate goal of your Hero. Will she succeed or will she fail? If we use Star Wars as an example, Luke was, for the most part, unaware of the depth of his ultimate goal. When he learned of the princess while cleaning Artoo he simply wanted to know who she was and if Obi-Wan Kenobi was the same person as Ben Kenobi. Returning to the droids after walking out on dinner he finds Artoo missing and goal is now to find the run away droid before his uncle found out. Luke’s goal, like your hero’s goal is aways changing. It is your job as the writer to ensure each change pushes the Hero and the story forward. After meeting Ben and deciding to go with him, Luke needs to find a way to Alderaan. When they discover that planet had been destroyed their goal was to catch up and destroy the lone TIE fighter. Then it was to escape the Death Star. Then it was to find and rescue the Princess. Leia knew the ultimate goal and was the key Luke needed to get the plans to the Rebellion. So in way Luke succeeded about three-quarters through the film. So the stakes were raised in the third act and the Death Star was homing in on the Rebel base on Yavin. The goal then changed to destroying the Death Star before it destroyed the Rebellion.

When you start planning goals for your Hero remember that the Hero may not know the ultimate goal of the story until they get to the end of the story. Give them smaller goals that push them forward. First act goals may not have anything to do with the story at all. Luke wanted to join his friends at the Imperial Academy when we first met him but the droids quickly changed those goals and the story started to move forward. It is the Hero’s goals that will drive the story forward, but those goals will be influenced by other characters or events happening around your Hero. Write out your Hero’s and Villain’s goals as they are when your story begins. Your Villain’s goal will probably focus on the story while your Hero has no idea what’s coming and his goals could be a simple as getting to bank before it closes.

Day Three – Creating Supporting Characters
At this point we have two characters, the Hero and the Villain. But a movie has so many other characters and they each play a role in the story. Characters such as, the Love Interest, the Mentor, the Friend, the Comic Relief are all important in film. Your job as the writer is to create characters that are compelling and worth watching for two hours. The character of Han Solo was in George Lucas’ story dating back to at least 1974 as the character had a role to play in the story. That role changed with each draft of the screenplay but it was still there. Above, I hinted at a Hero who is trying to get to the bank before it closes, so let’s the Villain is going to rob the bank just before it closes and the story is about stand-off that follows that botched robbery attempt. Who are our supporting characters? The police, of course. So we will create a character, The Negotiator. In the bank we will have a Teller who will help the Hero, a Bank Manager who find himself dead late in the second act and a Customer who the Hero must defend or protect. Of course there are other characters in the story, but these three are our Main Supporting Cast. They will have a role to play in the much of the story. For example, what if the Customer is pregnant and her fear and stress has caused her to go into labour? This will mean the Hero will need to either deliver the baby or get her out of the bank. The Supporting Cast help shape the story at this point of the development. The Bank Manager may refuse to open the safe which gets him killed, or maybe the Bank Manager is involved in the robbery and he killed to tie up loose ends.

So take some time to create three or four new characters that will play a direct and long term role in your story. With each character give them a name and a role to play in the story. Then come up with how their character adds to story. Look at my examples of the pregnant Customer and the bad Bank Manager for ideas. Connect each character to either the Hero or the Villain in some way.

Day Four – Building a Back Story
Who is Hero? Where is she from? What was doing a week before the story starts? Or a day before or an hour before? A number of different development books tell you to interview your characters and get to know everything little detail about their lives before writing your story. I don’t do that. At this point I have an idea what my story is and I’m going to create a background for each character that shows how they got themselves into the story as well as how they are going to get themselves out. If the Hero has to deliver the Customer’s baby them maybe the Hero is a nurse or a midwife. Or maybe she delivered her youngest sister when the Hero was just 10 years old because her mother didn’t get to the hospital in time and it happened on the side of the highway. Get creative, make your characters interesting at this point. Give depth to their lives. Why is the Bank Manager involved with the robbery? What events made him help the Villain rob his own bank? Or his he a plant the Villain was able to drop into the bank the week before? Now that makes me ask, who’s the Villain that he can just drop in one of his own people? Maybe the Villain works for the bank’s head office and has access to Human Resources records and he feels the bank owes him for some event. Now you have to create the event that has angered the Villain. This is the fun part of building your story. Ask questions and then answer them. Don’t go with your first answer, reach deeper than that to find the interesting answer. Maybe the Villain had a crush on a fellow employee, but the bank fired her which has angered the Villain. He decides to rob the bank to get back at them and then share the money to the fired employee.

Take some time to write the background of your characters. This information is going to help in creating scenes and story lines for your screenplay so put the effort in. Your story will be richer for it.

Day Five – Turning Goals into Plots
We’ve talked about character goals as well as events caused by Supporting Characters. Today we take that information and begin to build the different plot threads of the story. The Hero’s goals will be the central plot of your story. These are expected to twist and turn as the story unfolds around the Hero. The Villains goals will push against the central plot often, however at different points in the story those goals may lead the Villain in a different direction for a short time. Each of the Supporting Characters will have goals as well and they will play into the story at different points. Han Solo had to pay off a bounty put on him by Jabba the Hutt. In the original Star Wars he mentions his need to pay this debt a couple of times and kills poor Greedo because of it. In the middle of the film Luke uses this information to bride Han into helping him rescue Leia and then at the end of the film we see Han loading what we presume are boxes of money onto a loading platform. In The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Boba Fett catches up with Han and freezes him for the trip to Jabba the Hutt and in Return of the Jedi (1983) Han’s plot line is brought to an end after Luke and the others rescue Han, killing Jabba the Hutt in the process. Most likely we won’t have three films to spread a sub-plot over but this shows how a sub-plot begins, plays out and ends. A beginning, a middle and an end, just like the main plot. Don’t put too many sub-plots into the story as you only have two hours to tell your story. If, at the end of the film you’re able to tie the sub-plot directly to the main plot that will make the sub-plots even stronger.

Write out a possible two sub-plots for your story. In our example the Villain’s love for the fired character would be the first while in the second the audience discovers that the pregnant customer is The Negotiator’s wife.

Day Six – Writing A First Story Outline
We’re ready to write out the first outline of our story. It’s not going to be too long at this point and we’re going to write it in prose, as we would a short story. Write one page for the first act, showing how the characters all get into the story. The example would start with the Villain and the Hero both heading to the bank for their fateful meeting. You can add dialogue at this point if you’d like, but don’t waste a lot of your page on dialogue. The second act will cover two pages and will start to revel much of the subplots that we started to put together yesterday. The third act is up to one page. This includes the Climax of our story (from day 2) as well as how the story comes to an end. Get writing, this one is going to take a couple of hours.

Day Seven – Three Act Structure 201
Last week we learned about how a screenplay has three acts. This week we’re going to talk about the ‘Rules of Screenwriting’ that you may have read elsewhere. There are none. While stuff must happen in a specific order in your screenplay, it’s not a paint by numbers. There is no page count that must be followed. It is based on this premise that I’ve moved the ‘formula’ to the development stage of screenwriting. It’s like cooking with a recipe where you bring together the required tools and ingredients for your story and line them up for use. How you use them is up to you. Once you’ve finished developing your story you will start to write the your screenplay based on your development notes. Required scenes and events will appear in your screenplay, however they won’t always appear on the same page with every screenplay. If I were to give the exact same development information to five different writers I would expect five very different screenplays because each will take the ingredients and do something completely different with them.

Next week we’re going to start developing the sequences and scenes of our screenplay and then on week seven with just your final set of notes you’re going to write the first draft of your screenplay organically without the use of a formula or page count guide. You will find this process will give you greater freedom for stretching your story-legs and exploring different ideas for each scene during the writing phase. I’ve often found that the final I’ve written while still similar to my notes, is in fact very different then what I had originally set out to write. I believe this is because, during the development phase we’re using the logical side of our brain and then when we sit down to actually write the scene we’re using the creative side of our brain which gives us a better scene. The logical sided provided the map while the creative side actually got us there.

For now make sure your four page outline is complete before moving into week three.

– Steve

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