Sunday, September 18, 2011

ACFW Workshop Slides and Q&A (9-22-11)

I presented a five-hour version of The Moral Premise workshop at the American Christian Fiction Writer's Conference Sept 22, 2011 from 8 AM to 1 PM. In the days following I met with a number of authors and hope-to-be authors helping them beat out their stories.

I was also privileged to sit in on several other workshops, have dinner with super-agent Natasha Kern, and talk with numerous multi-published authors, with 20, 30, and even 50 books to their credit. It was a great few days in St. Louis. Between the questions and answers below I'll post some pictures taken during the trip.

Looking East from our conference meeting rooms
All of the photos in this blog were taken with my iPhone. the conference was held at the Hyatt Regency at the Arch. Thus the pictures of the full arch (like the one at the right) are actually taken through windows in the hallway next to the meeting rooms.

Here are the questions I was handed, some of which I answered in the session, and my answers.

1. On the Emotion Plotting Slide, how do you decide numeric values on each action line, that are used for the graph. (Judy Christie)

Judy, the numbers assigned are subjective and objectively determined. Subjectively, they are based on my sense of how emotionally UP or DOWN the scene will come across to the reader/audience when I'm done editing it. In some scenes/lines the number is my INTENT. In others, it's what it is already. For instance when my protag's husband dies, it's a major DOWNER, when she is able to board the ship safely with her girls to go home, its a minor UPPER. Objectively, the "emotion" I hope my audience will feel is the degree to which they perceive my protag making progress toward the physical goal (positive numbers), or being set up from achieving the goal (negative numbers). I assign a number from -10 to +10 to each scene, and then accumulate a balance, like a checking account balance. It's the balance that is plotted, not the individual scene values.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Inside the Mind of a Hollywood Director: Bitterness, Love, Verisimilitude

An interview with Gavin O’Connor director of WARRIOR
Gavin O'Connor

WARRIOR is a motion picture story about two bitterly estranged brothers who end up fighting in a cage for the mixed martial arts world championship. It is also about their relationship with their father, whom neither can forgive. The violence we see in the cage is visceral. Brothers fight. But more impactful in this story is the spiritual warfare that pits the brothers and their father in a three-way psychological cage. All three are warriors. Yet the movie dares to be about how each of us is called to fight the good fight and be a warrior for love.

Why do Hollywood directors make movies that contain intense violence, offensive language and questionable thematic material, which are the elements that earned WARRIOR its PG-13 rating from the MPAA? Some will object to the film’s realism, calling it gratuitous. But O’Conner would disagree. Why? Because he’s intent on telling the truth about the spiritual warfare that exists in every man. And that includes you.

So, offered below is a different kind of interview with a top Hollywood director. It offers a spiritual and psychological glimpse into a director’s motivation for the kind of tough but true films that someday be may be dubbed the “Gavin O’Connor genre.”

While I have edited out the spoilers from the interview, it will nonetheless make more sense if you’ve first seen the film, or have read a thorough review or synopsis of the story. You can do so HERE.

Gavin O’Connor is truly one of the best director’s in Hollywood, although his filmography is not that long. He’s known for three major films: MIRACLE (2004, starring Kurt Russell) about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s victory over the seemingly invincible Russian squad; PRIDE AND GLORY (2008, starring Collin Farrell, Edward Norton, and Jon Voight) the saga of a multi-generational family of New York cops and moral corruption; and now WARRIOR (2011, starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte).

Stan Williams: We hear about actors asking a director: “What’s my motivation?” Let me turn the tables. What motivated you to make WARRIOR?

Gavin O’Connor: That’s a very difficult question to answer. There were things going on in my life that I knew I wanted to deal with or gain some type of insight or understanding of them. I was really struggling with forgiveness. There were also things that happened in my childhood that I think I was trying to explore through my art. I also have a love of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), and I had never seen it dynamic portrayed in cinema before. So, I thought that was an interesting kind of possibility. Then it started to culminate with this idea, which I called “intervention in cage.”

Stan Williams: Which is a metaphor for what the film is really about…
Gavin O’Connor: Yes. What started to emerge, as I was thinking about the characters, was the idea of one man living in his higher self and someone living in his lower self and a third someone living in his spirituality. Then there is the idea of spiritual warfare. All these things were matriculating in a weird way, and they all started to come out.

Stan Williams: WARRIOR successfully engages audiences with several impossibilities: (a) it’s about two underdog brothers, who have been estranged for years, and (b) and yet they end up fighting each other in the final match for the mixed martial arts world championship. Ironically, it’s (c) their estrangement out of the cage that entangles and embraces them in the cage. While that’s intriguing, what do you do as a writer and director to help the audience embrace such improbabilities and make it seem so real? (1)

Gavin O’Connor: When I walked my co-writer, Anthony Tambakis, through the idea for the movie, he said, “You can’t have these two guys fight each other in the end. How are you going to pull that off?” Well, the way we approached all of this is to only tell the truth. We don’t write it and then shoot what we wrote. What we write becomes the blueprint for months of work-shopping the film with the actors.

Stan Williams: What do you do when you workshop a movie?

Gavin O’Connor: You meet extensively with the actors and you start connecting emotional lines. You start going so deep and dissecting the verisimilitude [the quality of realism in a work of art (3)] of every scene, that if anything seems false you address it. Like, how do we capture the essence of a marriage? How do we do that in the most truthful way? We always try to put everything under a microscope. We call it “non-acting.” For me, the word “acting” has a certain falseness to it. When I hear the word “acting” I always go for “non-acting.” We’re always trying to get to the truth of the scene. If we can keep doing that systematically and consistently throughout the whole film, hopefully, by the time we get to the impossibility [of the story’s plot] we’re so immersed in the emotionality of the piece and the characters, that the audience will want it, desire it, and be convinced of its reality.

Stan Williams: It seems that what you’re talking about is the psychological or moral motivation of the characters — because if you don’t tell the truth about their psychological motivations with respect to natural law, then the audience is going to pick up on that, and they’re not going to identify with the characters.

Gavin O’Connor: Absolutely. That’s exactly it. The characters must be rooted in their true psychological motivations. We’re always putting the microscope on the “want.” What do you want in this scene? And how are you going to get it?

Stan Williams: The Physical Wants and the Psychological Needs.

Gavin O’Connor: Yes. And they have to come from a truthful place. You really have to challenge it and poke it and prod it, because if it’s flimsy at all, it’ll fall like a house of cards.

Stan Williams: I’ll tell you, what you did in both PRIDE AND GLORY and WARRIOR translates incredibly to the screen. How long did you workshop?

Gavin O’Connor: I call it making the movie before you make the movie. With Nick Nolte [Paddy], the dad, we spent months together working on the character. Everyone has to do a biography on their own character. I give them a questionnaire with 100 questions to answer. And I want detailed answers. Because that’s what will inform everything, such as the emotional story lines. Then we start doing backstories on the [characters’] histories because since we’re making a movie about a family, there are things that everyone [among the actors and characters] has their own perspective on about what is true. We spent months doing it.

Stan Williams: What inner values are motivating Tommy to fight? Is he really trying to make things right with the Marines? Or is there a deeper motivation? Is he looking for an excuse to find forgiveness with his father?

Gavin O’Connor: The intention is that Tommy’s making a statement against God. He’s rejecting everything good. He’s rejecting love. He’s rejecting beauty. He’s rejecting all that is good in his life. There’s an expression, “Hurt people hurt people.” He’s a man who’s living in a lot of pain. And when you live in pain, it’s easy to inflict pain on others because that’s what you’re feeling yourself. I used to say to Tommy [the actor was Tom Hardy], think about Tommy as a guy who’s hitting a crack pipe.

Stan Williams: What’s that like?

Gavin O’Connor: It’s one of the most godless acts you can do. People who smoke crack experience an immediate high. But it’s a false high that goes away very quickly. It happens very quickly and then it goes away quickly. You’re always chasing it; and it’s so destructive. So, I’d say to Tommy, “When you get into the cage, you need to get high. You need to hit the crack pipe so you can actually experience this godless act that makes you feel good in the moment.”  But once it’s over Tommy has to deal with himself again and ask himself, “Who is this guy who’s living in all this pain?” That’s what I was going for with Tommy.
Stan Williams: By the end of the movie Tommy changes, in a surprising way. I promise not to give away the ending. But where does Tommy begin to change? Where does he start to turn and start to embrace the good like he uncharacteristically embraces his father?
Gavin O’Connor: That’s very perceptive. That’s exactly what’s going on. At the top of the movie Tommy’s waiting on the doorstep and he offers his father a bottle of the brand that his father used to love. His father says, “No, thank you.” And we come to learn that Paddy is a thousand days sober. Tommy in essence is becoming his father. And he’s come home to get drunk with him.

Stan Williams: Ah!

Gavin O’Connor: Tommy’s expecting the man he knew as a boy growing up [drunk and abusive]. But it all gets turned upside down. Now his father’s not the man he knew at all. He’s an entirely different human being. And Tommy’s becoming like his father was. So, when Tommy finally gets his father [Paddy] to take a drink and become drunk once again, even while Paddy is listening to Moby Dick on tape as he does throughout whole movie, Paddy [the white whale] gets in Ahab’s face [Tommy] and yells: “Ahab! You godless son-of-a-bitch.” At that point, Tommy sees himself reflected back in his father’s face. It’s an Jungian archetype thing. And that’s the beginning of the surrender. It’s the first time you see Tommy become compassionate toward his father. To be healed, Tommy has to die to self. (2)

Stan Williams: We’re rooting for Brendon, Tommy, and their father, throughout the film. But it’s like Brendon and his Dad are both trying to pull Tommy along.

Gavin O’Connor: Tommy is on this godless path, this warpath of personal destruction of anything in his way — but his father and his brother force him to change.

Stan Williams: In PRIDE AND GLORY there are crucifixes on the wall in everyone’s house, even the bad guy’s. But you don’t bring the spirituality forward as you do at the beginning of WARRIOR. In Tommy’s absence, Paddy has dramatically returned to his Catholic faith and Tommy tears him to shreds over it, as if what Paddy is doing is hypocritical. Why is that? Why the shift from one film to the other? Why did you bring the spirituality forward in WARRIOR?

Gavin O’Connor: I think it was something that was a little more prevalent in my life, and also more prevalent in the characters’ lives. In short, the story demanded it. And I always intended the title, WARRIOR, to be about spiritual warfare, and warrior lives outside of the cage. The intention of the title was never about guys fighting inside [the cage].

Stan Williams: A strong metaphor to be sure. I see that the movie is really about love, but there’s a lot of bitterness, hatred, and violent fighting in the cage. Isn’t love about being kind and gentle?

Gavin O’Connor: If you want to dramatize love you need to see the flip side of it. I think visualizing love is a hard thing to do without seeing the opposite because you want something organic to emerge from it. (4) Then, there’s the balancing act as a filmmaker trying to capture the verisimilitude of this sport, which is violent. But what I was going for, and maybe it doesn’t come through, is to at least root the violence in the characters and never make it gratuitous. It is also mixed martial arts and I also have to shoot the sport in the truthfulness of its intensity, although I tempered it a bit. Once again, that all served the intent of the movie because I was driving toward [the metaphor of a spiritual] intervention in a cage. So, the spirituality in the film and the love in the film and the message of the film were all driving toward those five rounds [at the end] in that cage with the two brothers.

Stan Williams: What I think makes the film unique is that neither are fighting for selfish reasons, not pride, not ego, not to be rich, but for other things. They are both sacrificing themselves, in the cage, for something greater than themselves.

Gavin O’Connor: I think there’s nobility to both of their causes and quests. There’s something beautiful within Tommy’s pain — his loyalty towards what he calls his [Marine] brother, whom he calls Manny, whom he lost. There’s a nobility to what he’s doing – to try to save somebody else. He can’t save himself, but he can honor a promise and save Manny’s wife and children, and give them a life — that sacrifice is really important to him.

Stan Williams
: What about Brendon?

Gavin O’Connor:
In regard to Brendon, there’s the nobility of fighting for your home, to save your family. But I didn’t just capture it in the movie. As a nation were in the midst of the housing crisis [when we shot the film] and it hasn’t changed three years later [now, during its release]. You have this man being in debt, and because of his mixed martial arts background he literally is able to fight his way out of debt. I thought that was, in a way, wish fulfillment. There are so many men in this country that are on the doorstep of losing their homes and have wives and children and are trying to put food on the table – they’re working several jobs. They’re just trying to keep a roof over their head. So, they’re [figuratively] fighting their way out of debt. But Brendon literally fights his way out of debt. I just thought it was a perfect metaphor to explore.


1 When O’Connor and Tambakis were writing WARRIOR, on their door they placed an Aristotle quote: “A convincing impossibility is better than an unconvincing possibility.” That’s good advice for all storytellers.

2 For my Moral Premise readers, this is Tommy’s Moment of Grace. While it does seem that both Brendon and Tommy are co-protagonists, and that is Gavin’s intent, Brendon changes little, and Paddy changes not a bit, although for one scene he slips off the wagon. But Tommy changes a lot. It is Tommy’s arc, not Brendon’s or Paddy’s, that creates the catharsis for the audience at film’s end. For that reason Tommy is the real protagonist, with Brendon and Paddy as the co-protagonists. The antagonist in this film is the bitterness, hatred, and inability to forgive, which is so prevalent in our culture. All of that is metaphorically represented by the hatred we see in the MMA cage and the tournament’s opportunistic promoters. Another way to analyze the characters is that this is a buddy road trip film, with three buddies. Each is the antagonist to the others who are their own protagonists. Remember, antagonists exist to change protagonists. But, however you analyze the film, O’Connor has created a masterful work drawing us in and helping us understanding a bit more about what sacrificial love is all about.

3. For more on the importance of verisimilitude (the quality of realism in film), and how it’s absence can kill the most nobly intended of film projects, see Life As It Is vs. How It Ought To Be.)

4. This is an important point that needs some explanation. When O’Connor says you want something “organic to emerge” from the juxtaposition of hatred and love, he means this: Just saying it, or TELLING it (as in a didactic sermon, homily or teaching) will not connect emotionally or memorably with the audience. Audiences learn through experience (or simulation of the experience which a well produced movie is). It’s the adrenalin rush that creates memories. So, you have to SHOW something with such verisimilitude that it’s ingrained in the audience’s mind, and not just a passing intellectual thought. This explains the power of stories, and why the Bible is 75% narrative.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Importance of Screenplay Formats

When I posted Judging Script Contests - New Criteria (a.k.a. Laughing Nun with a Ruler) I realized I was stepping on some sacred ground without taking off my shoes. The catalyst was some well-meaning criticism over a script draft I had submitted to a contest. (Something I rarely do.) What were my violations: (a) I used the word "we" in dialogue, and (b) later a few lines, where a character is yelling, were capitalized. The script was also criticized (c) because the opening dialogue didn't give any clear indication of the relationship between characters. [Duh! It was VO of the co-protagonist, from the end of the movie -- foreshadowing the end.]

The emphasis of the previous post was a call-out for contests to do what many studio and agency heads do... they don't ask to see the script first, but rather ask for hooks, log lines, and a one page snyopsis. THEN, if the STORY has some merit at that level, they'll take a look at the script. In addition to those two or three standard items I suggest that those "reading" or looking for stories, add two other very short items to their submission request list: a Conflict of Values and/or the Moral Premise Statement. In other words: what the movie is REALLY about. The log line and often the synopsis will only tell you what's going on physically or visibly. But what REALLY connects with audiences are the character's value motivations that drive the action. (Do I need to say it again, read The Moral Premise.) THEN, if all that seems like there's potential to the story, ASK FOR THE SCRIPT.


And when the script arrives in a reader's hands, standard formatting rules are really, very important. (See my P.S. as there is really, no standard.) As a writer (and reader) I need them desperately. Over the deacades the standards have developed to the point where anyone with some experience can understand a great deal about a script at a glance, or a scan. And when reading, the various margins, capitalization, and white space, helps us "see" the story, at least in terms of pacing, length, and budget. There's more below from two of my friends.

What tools do I use? In order of importance they are:

1. FINAL DRAFT software (I'm on a Mac). While you can change the format and use different templates for the type of media you're writing (or for whom), the program does come pretty well set up and ready to go. I think I've made only slight adjustments.

2. THE HOLLYWOOD STANDARD (book by Christopher Riley, Michael Wise Books). Chris's book is sandwiched between my Random House dictionary and well-worn Rodale Synonym Finder, just above my computer. I have the pages edge indexed with ink tabs, and I refer to it often. I still find things I want to do that Chris doesn't discuss, so that's when I go to No. 3.

3. Screenplay and script drafts from studio projects I've working on. 

There are half-a-dozen other format reference guides on my shelves, but I essentially ignore them.

Now, for some choice quotes from two friends who wanted to make sure I wrote THIS post; Douglas Lloyd Mcintosh, and Barbara Nicolosi (both credited WGA writers).

From Doug:
Purchase and use Final Draft, the least expensive and most intuitive screenwriting program available. Simply by using the default settings the writer can create a professionally formatted script that will be acceptable almost anywhere. Another thing I like about Final Draft is that it includes a PDF creator so you can turn your formatted script into a file that anyone can read or print out.

As someone who has read literally hundreds of scripts, I can feel a little more sympathy toward judges, readers or producers who don't want to struggle through a script in a format not considered professional by current standards.

I can also sympathize with Mickey Rooney, who has probably read far, far more scripts than you and I put together over his busy professional lifetime. You're absolutely right that three pages is not enough to reach any meaningful story point, but I tell you, on a certain level I have to agree with him. I want a story that grabs you right from the first moment. If a screenwriter has any skill, professionalism, talent and/or the absolutely crucial ability to get you interested in a story and concerned about the fate of the characters, you probably are going to be able to see it within three pages. My experience is that if I'm bored on the first three pages the rest of the script is almost certainly going to be drudgery to read as well. If a reader wants to keep reading after the first three pages, chances are the audience will want to keep watching the film or TV show.

Story structure is extremely important as you well know, but the first test of any film is whether the reader or later the audience wants to find out what's going to happen next. And they should want to find out what's going to happen next every step of the way. It's vital to tell the story in such a way as to keep people turning those pages.
From Barbara:
I wanted to express a brief defense on behalf of those of us who are sticklers about screenwriting grammar, aka formatting.  Considered under a professional lens, formatting is not irrelevant.  In the vast majority of projects, a correctly formatted page equals one minute of time on the screen.  The margins for dialogue are shorter and allow for the actors to add expression.  The longer margins allow the audience to get a good enough look at whatever is being described.  Beyond timing, capitalizations are signposts to casting agents, line producers, directors and DP's for all their respective tasks. 

The best way to consider a screenplay is like unto an architectural drawing.  People outside the profession do not appreciate all the industry standard norms for drawing, and would probably dismiss them.  But they have their uses.  Essential uses from a professional standpoint. 

People who haven't learned the industry standard for formatting are better off writing their story in a straight narrative fashion, as in a treatment.  There are some expectations for a treatment, but few people in the business will quibble over them. 

Thank you both.

I hope this post makes my suggestion in the previous post more clear. I agree with everything you've said. Great feedback.

And now for my


I think the differences between these two posts on script format comes down to this: "Get it close, avoid the gross." Be consistent and follow some sort of logic.  In other words, the general rules apply and the script needs to be close in terms of spacing, font size, and appearance on the page. But, I continue to get scripts from credited filmmakers and A listers that would be rejected at a moments notice by the so call "contests." And people I work with in L.A. say EVERY studio or group has their own format that is different from everyone else in some way that is obvious.

For instance there is no "precise" and "absolute" standard regarding:

-- The Order. General to specific, or specific to general.
-- Separators: hypens, spaces, or periods. I've seen them all.
-- FLASHBACK at front or rear or on line by itself.
-- Scene numbers. Yes or No, depending on your preference. Scripts are easier to critique WITH scene numbers.
-- Never put action description in the slug line. I've seen it, but it's stupid.

-- I've seen everything from 3.5 in wide dialogue to 4.75 inches.
-- Page margins are consistent from 1" on top, bottom, and right, and 1.5 on left, with 1/4" variations

-- I see many gerunds and adverbs. MANY of them.
-- I see many paragraphs that are 8 to 12 lines or more in length.
-- I see descriptions that when broken down will take pages to describe accurately, but in a screenplay they read fine and make sense. They tell the story.

In the end, the script must be formatted exactly, shot for shot, to give the studio an idea of the budget. An independent filmmaker sent me a script recently that she intends to shoot. No one else is involve. Not sure she has the budget, but in such cases a proper format will tell her and her production manager what it will cost to shoot and how many days. But there were scene descriptions of action that rather than taking up the 1/8 of a page that was written, would take 3 pages to shoot.

So, in the end format matters. But the standard is in the reader's head.

Sequel Post: The Importance of Screenplay Formats - Part 2

Monday, September 5, 2011

Judging Script Contests - New Criteria

If you won't believe me in this matter, read Christopher Lockhart's post Screenwriting Contests.


I rarely submit to script contests or (minor) film festivals because I think the contest and festival sub-industry needs a new set of rules.

Too often the evaluation criteria focuses on visual format and appearance and not on what's important to the audience—story structure.

The obsession with format and appearance rules (margins, fonts, capitalization, etc -- things which the audience never sees or hears), reminds me of nun running around with a ruler pretending that skirt lengths are an objective measure of spiritual integrity. Then there's the lady in the graduate office with her ruler measuring margins on thesis and dissertation submissions, as if correct margins were a measure of critical thinking. While there COULD be a correlation, there is a better way to evaluate the guts of a good story. And I intend to share that with you below.

I will admit that submitting a script with gross format violations does show a level of disrespect for the industry. But too often it appears that contests are being run by nuns with rulers rather than by judges who understand the rules of story structure.  Let's start with the end in mind: the audience. It's easy to hire a script doctor to correct format issues. It's much more difficult to find a good story.

Recently one of our rare submissions was rejected for the oddest reasons. The rejection rationale, claimed that our script had signs of ameraturism, and a few specifics were mentioned. (We work hard to follow formatting bibles, e.g. Riley's The Hollywood Standard.) But the accusation prompted me to go further and open up a number of scripts I have been sent by A-listers in L.A. for review. I get paid now and then to do such things. Every one of the claimed "amateurisms" in our submitted script could be found in the the scripts of produced films or films in development from major studios on my shelf. Hmmm?

Recently one of my produced writer-director clients in L.A. has been trying to please the head producer of another firm with a story and script to the producer's liking. It seems the producer, like some contest judges, are enamored with a set of easy to understand "rules" or "adages" that (if you put equivocation aside) are clear signs of a good or bad script. It can be frustrating for the writer to convince some folks that what they're asking for are distractions and not essentials. Although this is a subjective industry perhaps there's a way to make it a tad more objective and constructive. 


Issac Asimov, it is said about his early days as an author, was an illiterate grammarian, and his editors labored over his work to make them publishable.  Why? Because they were great stories. Had his work been judged under the auspices that grammar and comma placement were sure signs of a good story, the world would have missed the most prolific author the 20th century.

Another case in point is Elmore "Dutch" Leonard. Although I've never read any of his raw manuscripts, this line from GET SHORTY is attributed to his attitude:
You have an idea, you write down what you wanna say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong...I've seen scripts where I know words weren't spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it at all. So I don't think it's too important.
And it's not unimportant to point out that many of Asimov's and Leonard's stories were successfully made into movies. The question becomes, were their stories accepted because the margins and the commas were in the right place?  Obviously not, because Asimov never was a screenwriter and of Leonard's 31 films  based on his stories, he is credited with screenwriting only nine. So, obviously, a good story for making into a movie is based on something other than the format, grammar, and comma placement.


Why then all the rules about judging screenplays based on format, and easy visual cues? Because it's easy. There are too many crappy stories out there, in the form of screenplays, and so readers take the easy way out.

But even taking a little longer and reading the first ten pages can not tell you if there's a good story present or not.  Ten pages does not even get to the first turning point of a classic beat sheet, which for a 110-140 page script would be between page 13-18.

I once cornered Mickey Rooney in a Canadian Golf Course's Pro Shop. Really. I handed him a script...saying there was a part in it for him. He took it and said, "Okay, I'll give you three pages. That's all I'll need." How could he possibly do that? Of course he couldn't.

So, here are the rules that I wish such festivals and contests of scripts, (and stars et al) would follow. They make more sense than looking at commas, margins and capitalization. Using these rules might just result in some better stories coming out of Hollywood that would better connect with audiences. The industry needs it.


Let's strive for stories (and scripts) of value, not success. In that spirit I offer the contribution below.

All script submissions should include:

A. Title (plus, if based on another IP who owns it)
B. Genre and estimated MPAA rating
C. Target Audience (demo or psycho-graphics)
D. Estimated budget
E. Hook
F. Log Line
G. Inner (psychological) Conflict of Values 
H. Moral Premise Statement
I. One page synopsis (450 words) or Beat Sheet Outline
J. Script/Screenplay

Note: Items A through D cannot be judged, but do help evaluate later criteria. The evaluation begins with E through J, and the generic question for each is, "Is it good? "

That is, am I intrigued by:
E. The hook?
F. The log line?
G. The values in conflict? (the core conflict)
H. The Moral Premise? (what the movie is really about)
I. The One Page Synopsis or beat outline?

Notice, we haven't cracked the script yet.

If the answer to any two of those questions (of items E-I) is a firm "no," then judges should reject the submission for the reasons noted.  If they get all "yeses" for E through I and get to J, then they might want to crack the script.

Opinion and taste are always present, and a judge should readily admit it. But to confuse "opinion" with "amateur" is disingenuous. I have a shelf full of scripts that have been produced by A-listers that contain so called  "amateurisms".

Here's my evaluation recommendations:

Item E: HOOK
Question: Does the hook suggest an impossibility or improbability that is viscerally engaging?
Answer: Yes - Maybe - No.
Rejection Reason: Hook is not viscerally engaging to reader. "A convincing impossibility is better than a unconvincing possibility." (Aristotle)

Question: Does the log line describe or imply the following elements:
  • F1: The protagonist
  • F2: The type of "struggle"
  • F3: The antagonist
  • F4: The protagonist's physical goal
  • F5: The stakes of the goal is not reached?
  • F6: (optional) Is it visceral?
  • Not Evaluated: Cleverness of words.
Answer: Yes - May - No.
Rejection Reason: The log line is missing an element. The story's essence requires clear physical conflict and goals.

[This item may only be clear to those who have read my book, The Moral Premise. The Conflict of Values is something that is at the motivational core of every successful story, whether or not a writer understands it or can articulate it. If the protagonist's and the antagonist's motivational values are not naturally opposing, there is not going to be a cogent story. But a story may be cogent and reflect organic conflict even if the writer is clueless about the conflict of values. ]

Question: Are the stated conflict of values natural opposite and generally accepted as universal values by the target audience?
Answer: Yes - Maybe - No.
Rejection Reason: The conflict of values are not naturally opposing and would not organically cause a conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist elements.
 (or) The values in conflict are not universally (or subliminally) understood or held to by the target audience.

[I have also referred to this (perhaps more accurately) as the Moral-Physical Premise Statement (MPPS). Again, without reading The Moral Premise or having knowledge about this through another source such as my blog or essays, this may need some explaining that I will not do here. I will, however, explain this much: The MPPS ties together the moral motivation of both sides of the story's characters and their resulting physical consequences in a way that is understood by the audience to be natural, organic, and universally true.]
Question: Will the moral premise statement SUBLIMINALLY be understood by the target audience to be natural, organic, and universally true?
Answer: Yes - Maybe - No
Rejection Reason: The MPPS will not be subliminally understood by the target audience to be naturally, organic and universally true.

Question: Does the synopsis (or beat sheet outline) clearly describe the main turning points of a story in the chosen genre? For instance: Does the protagonist have a clear psychological need and a physical goal that at first are rejected? Is there an inciting incident? Is there a mid-point (a Moment of Grace) where the protagonist either rejects or accepts the underlying psychological truth about which the movie is really about? Is there a near death (or faux ending) as a result of the protagonist's efforts to achieve his or her goal? Is there a final incident where the antagonist attacks, threatens the stakes and ends the movie early? And is there a resolved ending, redemptive or tragic?  (Yes, a European movie would have a different structure?)
Answer: Yes - Some - No
Rejection Reason: There is no cogent structure that the reader can understand. (or) One or more critical story structural elements are missing.

[My bias here is that successful stories are not dependent on strict rules of format, but on the structural elements above. So, while the following are important, a script doctor can fix most of them if the story is otherwise sound.]
Question: To what degree are the following elements engaging, understood, and easily read:
a. Action descriptions
b. Interior motivations
b. Dialogue
c. Characterization
d. Scene structure (timing, beginning, middle, end, conflict)
e. Page format (is it close? does it cheat and lie about the film's length)
f. Page count (80-140).  I have received scripts that were over 300 pages in length. I did not read them.
g. Spelling and Typos. (Allow 1 per page but don't count them if you can understand easily what's being said.)
i. Dramatic execution of the turning points.
j. Other....
Answers: For each: Yes - Maybe - No.
Rejection Reason: List and comment.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Convincing Impossibility Makes the Best Story

This is a post about STORY HOOKS that could have appeared in my review of WARRIOR

Also, Hooks and Log Lines go together. So here's a link to my post on creating good Log Lines.


I encourage my students to start developing their stories with a nearly impossible physical hook, and then as the story takes shape to stick close to the psychological truth of natural law.  Taking a line from comedy development, a good story will "tell a lie that tells the truth". The LIE is the physical hook (it's an impossibility). But the TRUTH is the moral motivation that drives the action. The two together ensure you will engage your audience.

Storytellers are typically allowed only one hook per story. Everything else must be true in a physical sense. But EVERYTHING in the psychological world must be true. No moral hook is allowed. 

So, with that here's a quote from the production notes of WARRIOR written by the director Gavin O'Conner and Anthony Tambakis.  Emphasis mine.
O'Connor's original, enduring story idea was one about two brothers who haven't seen each other in fourteen years and end up fighting for the world championship, both coming up as extreme underdogs. Although on paper the story might sound farfetched,  the door to the room where Anthony Tambakis and Gavin wrote bore a sing with the Aristotle quote: "A convincing impossibility is better than an unconvincing possibility". To them, this mean that in the world of fiction, anything is possible if it's told truthfully.
The impossibility is the physical hook, and to that O'Connor and Tambakis emphases the importance of telling the story truthfully. So, if I can channel Aristotle and O'Conner here's what I'll put outside my door the next time I write a story:

A convincing impossibility told truthfully
is better than an unconvincing possibility told falsely.

BTW: the original Aristotle quote from POETICS found in my Samuel Henry Butcher based translation is this, [with an editorial correction by me]:
The poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities. ... Once the [impossibility] has been introduced and an air of likelihood imparted to it, we must accept it in spite of the absurdity. (ARISTOTLE: On Man in the Universe. Classics Club Edition. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, N.Y.. p. 439).
In other words, a possible story that ignores the natural laws of morality is no match for an impossibility story told with moral integrity.

And now a word from a pretty good story writer:

Amended 5/28/13

Critics of Hollywood often point to the a motion picture's overt exaggeration of character trait or story arc. The claim is that the exaggeration is not "real" and therefore invalid. Aside from the boredom factor of watching the story about a man who shops for groceries and comes home to fix dinner as a regular occurrence with associated drama, the criticism ignores the purpose of stories in culture, which I cover elsewhere.

In talking about hooks and story impossibilities, here's the seminal quote (emphasis mine):
In general, the impossible must be justified by reference to artistic requirements, or to the higher reality, or to received opinion. With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible. Again, it may be impossible that there should be men such as Zeuxis painted. 'Yes,' we say, 'but the impossible is the higher thing; for the ideal type must surpass the reality.' To justify the irrational, we appeal to what is commonly said to be. In addition to which, we urge that the irrational sometimes does not violate reason; just as 'it is probable that a thing may happen contrary to probability.'
[POETICS by Aristotle (translated by S.H.Butcher). XXV. Critical Objections brought against Poetry, and the principles on which they are to be answered.]

 A couple of terms jump out when I look at the original. "higher reality," "Impossibility," and "type"; which reminds me of this:
To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large startling figures. 
[Flannery O'Connor]
A story's "hook" is all this, and is a necessity for a story to connect. Stories need impossible hooks. These are brought to mind by the concept of type. Types shout. Types draw startling figures. Types, when done properly (like similes and metaphors) do get people's attention because they are not natural, surreal, other-worldly, interesting, and out of the mundane. 

The concept of "type" is worth underscoring. "Types" are like figures of speech. Types exaggerate a particular trait or facet of the story for the sake of underscoring an attribute of the moral or point. Noah taking eight souls on board an ark (along with a host of animals) while all other animal life perishes, is an exaggeration compared to what it foreshadows — Christian baptism, in which no one dies. The same is true of Moses leading the Children of Israel through the Red Sea at the expense of Pharaoh's army. That story also foreshadows Christian baptism. To get the point across, the flood and the Red Sea crossing both sound like impossibilities, and thus accentuate the higher and more important, but less dramatic, thing. They becomes surreal stories that seem to surpass reality, in order to highlight the attributes of the reality. They are thus TYPES.

When Sandra Bullock won her Academy Award for acting in THE BLIND SIDE she thanked the Tuohy's for allowing the them to "exaggerate" their lives. The exaggeration was necessary to convey the finer points of Michael Orr's and Lee Anne Tuohy's lives.