Monday, March 13, 2017

The Sequence Approach (Paul Gulino)

[UPDATE: Please see Christopher Pratt's comment at the bottom of this post. It's instructive.]

Today I listened to a recorded webinar of ScreenwritingU's Chris Soth explaining a bit about Paul Gulino's book "Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach."  Soth calls this structure the Mini-Movie Method (MMM). It was really a sales pitch for ScreenwritngU's 30 day course on the same. Strangely, they kept comparing the MMM (with it's 8 Turning Point beats, which actually has 15) to Syd Field's 3 Act Structure as if the 3 Act structure had only 2 beats (not 8). Those two beats being the turning points at the end of Act 1 and 2. Clearly, there is a lot more to go on that the Act 1 & 2 climaxes, and any number of books, workshops and blog posts (this blog included), will explain the wonderful world of structural beats to you.

But considering that those eight segments of a movie (each 12.5%) of the whole, as INDIVIDUAL movies or long sequences, each with a beginning, middle and end, did intrigue me. The idea is nothing new, but Soth explained it in a fresh way that is worth sharing and expanding on. (Actually his explanation that intrigued me was because, although I had Gulino's book on my iPad for the last 2 years I had not read it. Am correcting that now.)

Let me challenge you to think about a movie as a number of long sequences, each with a beginning, middle and end. The 2016 Best Picture, MOONLIGHT, is constructed with three long sequences, each about a gay-black man raised in a poor, drug invested part of Miami. The three parts tell the the coming of age story of this person: First, as a boy (called Little); second, as a teenager (called Chiron, his give name); and third, as an adult (called Black). The three sections are each preceded by a title card, simply:




This simple and direct structure, made explicit to the audience, was one (of many) reasons the screenplay won an Screenwriting Oscar for BEST ADAPTATION.

What Gulino (and Soth) propose is that you divide your feature into 8 parts, two for each of the major 4 segments: Act 1, Act 2A, Act 2B, and Act 3. These 8 parts are the same segments (less the Prologue and Denouement) you'll see on my Story Diamond  or on the linear representation of a Story's 13-20 Beats --- both represented below in miniature. (Click on the links above for posts that explain. And, click on any diagram for a larger version, that you can actually read.)

[BTW: I have updated the StoryDiamond again, and for the first time in six years edited and updated the Annotation or Notes Document that goes with it. If you use the Story Diamond I encourage you to download the latest at the links herein.]

Now, here's the new thing I came away with. If we think of each of these 8 segments, or sequences, or mini-movies as each having a goal that the protagonist needs to achieve, then it's like you have 8 subplots, which run sequentially, as opposed to most subplots that run in parallel.  Here's a diagram I crafted. Below the diagram is a further explanation. (You can click on any image to make it bigger.)

1. One good way to hook your audience is that each of the sequences has a goal. Let's call the first seven, "subgoals," as the end point of each of the subplots. (In the digram, the subgoals are symbolized by the red stars). The story must be constructed in such a way that each subgoal MUST be achieved before the next subplot can be engaged, and the next subgoal be achieved. That is, the first subgoal is logically nested and necessary before the second subgoal can be pursued and achieved. This is very much like a video game (which I don't play) where to get to the end of the game you have to acquire all the earlier magic lanterns, or pots of gold along the way. If you miss one, you stop dead in your tracks. 

The trick is to construct a story where the eight subplots and subgoals are logically dependent, nested and chronologically sequential. The later goals all have to be subservient to the earlier goals. (Soth used INDIANA JONES AND THE LOST ARC as an example.)

2. Of course, each of the subgoals MUST support the final main goal. This is what I teach about subplots (that run in parallel) and their subgoals—e.g. every subplot goal must be related to the single moral premise, and the virtues and vices associated with it. That is, every subplot has to struggle with the same conflict of values, but perhaps in a different way.  In Gulino's Sequences (and Soth's Mini-Movies) the subplots are sequential, and logically dependent. This is brilliant. 

3. The process suggests that just after each goal is achieved, there is an increasingly terrible and epic failure on the part of the protagonist, which causes his hopes to descend into fear. According to the Moral Premise theology (yeah, I should start a religion), these immediate descends are the consequence of two related forces: (1) the action of the antagonist, and (2) the weakness of the protagonist, which is a milder form of the powerful vice exerted by the antagonist.

Do I need to point out the emotional roller-coaster effect this of my bully pulpits? 

This perfectly follows an age old concept of novel writing—in every scene-sequel sequence there is a DISASTER that spurs the action forward. Here's a diagram from my on-line workshop (Storycraft Training). An explanation follows.

Novel Scene-Sequel Sequence (simplified)
Running from left to right in the above diagram. (1) The protagonist has a physical GOAL to achieve. (2) The protagonist takes action to achieve that goal, and in so doing creates CONFLICT with the antagonist. (3) Because of the conflict, the goal is not fully achieved, resulting in a DISASTER. (4) The protagonist experiences an EMOTIONAL REACTION, which acts as a motivation to keep going. (5) The protagonist spends some time evaluating in his mind (THOUGHT) the DILEMMA faced, until... (6) The protagonist makes a decision about the next goal and takes the fist steps to achieve it. [And the process REPEATS starting with the new goal.]
Now, I've added a couple of things from my other workshop sessions (c.f. Storycraft Training). Let me repeat the diagram for ease of reference.

4. Each sub goal has to be harder to achieved, and the conflict and tension associated with its accession has to be higher than the last subplot and goal. I have gradated the vertical scale into +8 and -8 levels. 

5. Likewise the disasters (represented by the black dos) are increasing terrible. Thus, the goals and the disasters, get farther and farther apart, creating an escalating emotional roller coaster. the dipole here is HOPE vs. FEAR—a good way to convey it on an emotional level, which for a story is critical. Of course there are other ways to define the roller coaster, e.g. rationally (Is the protagonist progress toward the goal progressing or retarding?), and/or morally (Is the essential truth of the moral being tested true or false?

6. Lastly, going back to my earlier description of the 13-20 beats, the Turning Points and the Pinch Points have a characteristic difference in how each of those seven disasters occur. The odd number disasters (above, i.e. 1, 3, 5, 7) are initiated or caused by the antagonist's power, whereas the even number disaster (above, i.e. 2, 4, and 6) are caused by the protagonist's weakness, blindness, and poor judgement. 


MOONLIGHT and Screenplay Rules

Each year I read one or both of the screenwriting Oscar winners. The theory is, in doing so, I'll learn how to write better screenplays and help others do the same.  In this case the learning from MOONLIGHT (Best Adaptation) was two fold.

I watched the movie on iTunes, then found the PDF shooting script HERE. The challenge I knew was to discover how Barry Jenkins wrote something that was so interior in scope, and was so silent. While there is some action and dialogue, the interior emotional tension is thick.

A screenplay is suppose to describe what is SHOWN and HEARD on screen, without TELLING us what the character is THINKING. The screenwriter describes the setting, the props, the posture, the bodily response, and when all of that is done rightly, then we give the writer permission to tell us what is actually going on inside the mind.

The adage is, learn to do it well, and then you can break the rules. Here's an excerpt from the third act. There are somethings here, expertly done, but they break the rules. Can you identify the rule breakers? (I use the term "rule breakers" with derision. )

This starts on page 79.
  1. We watch the children at play a moment longer. We’ve seen none of these kids before, we’ll see none of them again. 
    A final beat of this, then... 
    A door closed -- Black’s car parked deep in the corner of this parking lot, in the farthest back corner away from street light, obscured by low-hanging shade trees.  
    The diner is away from us, across the parking lot. Black takes it in a moment, pulls on a fresh shirt. 
    He’s moving, crossing the parking lot at an easy clip. It’s quiet out, a few passing cars to Black’s left running north on Biscayne Boulevard, no foot traffic -- can hear the SOUND of his footfalls on the pavement. 
    As he nears the threshold of this diner, takes the handle on the entry... 
    CLOSE ON: an old school bell, the sound of it jingling as the door it’s affixed to parts. 
    And right away, the sound of music, something old, soft, and lilting (think Aretha Franklin’s One Step Ahead). 
    Black scanning this room, his view of the place a clue for us: this is definitely the same diner we saw Kevin working in during the earlier phone call. 
    All the details are there, the old-school register, vintage chairs and table-tops. And in the corner, that old school jukebox blessing us with Aretha. 
    ...on the move now, crosses the diner with eyes down and ahead of him. There’s a counter lined with stools, directly opposite the staging station and adjacent the register. 
    Black eases up to the counter, places his cell atop it and takes a seat. 
    No one stirs at Black’s movement, no one watches. Looking about the place again, we notice the other patrons: a quartet of college girls in a corner booth shoring up for a night on the town, an elderly gentleman sitting to himself, staring into a cup of mild coffee. 
    As Black watches the elderly gentleman... 
                    VOICE (O.S.)                                        (moving)                                            Be right with you. 
    A figure moving past, carrying an urn over to the old man, sets a new cup down and pours a fresh coffee, scoops up the old cup as he moves on. 
    As he crosses to the girls, we see him better: it’s Kevin. 
    We watch as he speaks to them; can’t hear any of it but from the feel of it, very jovial, Kevin is good at this work. 
    A beat of watching Kevin here, isolated bits of him from Black’s perspective: Kevin’s lips as he speaks, the hand he rests to his neck instinctively.
    Finished with the girls, Kevin turns back toward the counter, hands full with their spent dishes. As he approaches, he looks right at Black, right at us... 
                    KEVIN                                                (moving)
              Be right with you, boss, just                           let me get this out the way.
    ...and moves past. 
    Somehow, Kevin has not noticed him. 
    Something lodged in Black’s throat, without thinking places his hand there: Am I breathing? 
    He must be, he’d better be: those dishes discarded somewhere in the back and... here comes Kevin. 
             How you doin’ tonight, what                            can I get you?
    Kevin flipping through a stained note-pad, hasn’t bothered to look up yet. As he does, his eyes settle on Black’s. 
    Kevin watching this man. And Black watching back, the two of them silently holding each other’s gaze, pure curiosity. 
Here's what I noticed throughout the script, but I'll restrict my examples to the passage above.

1. The tone and mood of MOONLIGHT is expertly included in the visual descriptions. The setting, the lights, the movement (all visual), are also metaphors for what the audience should be feeling. We're not TOLD how the audience should feel, but phrases like those underlined SHOW us.
  • "Black's car parked deep in the corner of this parking lot..." 
  • "the farthest back corner away from street light, obscured by low-hanging shade trees."
  • "...away from us, across the parking lot..."
  • " foot traffic -- can hear the SOUND of his footfalls on the pavement."
  • "...the sound of music, something old, soft, and lilting..."
  • "...with eyes down..."
  • "...staring into a cup of mild coffee..."
But the "rules" tell us that we should never use past tense verbs, present participles, break the fourth wall, use adverbs or gerunds. And all of those "errors" are used extensively throughout the MOONLIGHT script. Can you see them in the bulleted list above? Here are a few more.

2. We're told: Don't break the fourth wall. Yet, the MOONLIGHT script includes the audience/reader a great deal.
  • "We watch..." 
  • "We've seen..."
  • "We see..."
  • "...he looks...right at us..."
  • "...we notice..."
3. We're told: Avoid adverbs, present participles, and gerunds. Yet, they're everywhere. 
  • "scanning the room..."
  • "blessing us with Aretha."
  • "Looking about the place..."
  • "an elderly gentlemen sitting to himself, staring into a cup..."
  • "As Black watches the elderly gentleman..."
  • "...watching Kevin..."
  • "Kevin watching this man. And Black watching back. The two of them silently holding each other's gaze..."
4. We're told: Only describe what can be seen, and never say what the characters are thinking:
  • "..but from the feel of it, very jovial..."
  • "...Something lodged in Black's throat, without thinking places his hand there: Am I breathing?"
  • "He must be, he'd better be..."
NOW, this is NO CRITICISM of BARRY JENKINS. The screenplay reads easily, visually, and most of the writing is PRESENT ACTIVE. But to communicate this interior sense of emotions, the gerunds, the adverbs, and the other things work wonderfully. 

Yes, you might argue that this is an example of learning to follow the rules so you can break them. But here's what's different about Jenkin's situation. He had written and directed a bunch of shorts, but this was only his second full length movie, and his first, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, was something he directed for $13,000 and no studio readers were involved. Add to that, Plan B executives (Brad Pitt) had seen Medicine for Melancholy and liked it and wanted to work with Jenkins, so with Plan B behind him,  they persuaded a A24, new distributor, to get behind Moonlight as their first feature to finance and distribute.  (Jenkins also said in an interview I watched from a Netherlands film festival, that the OSCARS SO WHITE protest from 2015, heightened awareness of movies by black artists.) So, Jenkins was not in a situation where the grammar or the format was ever an issue. His previous work and his connections spoke louder than the grammar of his screenplay. In other words, the executed work is what's important, not the screenplay's grammar.


This is further reinforced when voting occurs for the Best Screenplay categories. It was clear to me (having lived it numerous times) that no common Hollywood reader had ever read Jenkin's screenplay without being told by their boss, first, "We're going to make this movie." Of course, I don't know for sure, but I'm willing to bet MOONLIGHT was never subjected to the anonymous eyes of a first tier reader. Had it been, I'm sure it would have been immediately rejected. But yet, like a Quentin Taratino script, it wins an Oscar. (And, PLEASE, do not tell me that Quentin Taratino has learned how to write a script so he can break the rules. If you've ever, ever seen a Taratino script you would know by page 2 he never learned the rules in the first place.)

Yesterday, I wrote four screenwriters I know in Hollywood, all who have worked on many films that were produced and two who are Academy members. I asked if those voting for the BEST SCREENWRITING categories actually read the scripts they're sent. The answers came back: "Probably not," and "Usually, no." What they do is watch the finished movie and infer what the screenplay was like. 

So, I'll say this I have in past posts. If you're a screenwriter that wants to waste your time, heave your screenplays at the anonymous studio blockade, and see them bounce off into the rubbish pile. They may be Oscar winners, but 90% of the readers in Hollywood wouldn't recognize it as such. Readers generally are not going to take the time to understand your story, but find fault out of a personal bias or tell you to follow the rules. For the rest of you, who want to get your screenplays made....ignore the obsessive format and grammatical rules, and find someone to help you make the story into a film.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Roller Coaster Action Scale and How Bad Scale.

I frequently write and talk about the importance of a logical and emotional roller coaster for a story's main spine. (See: That is, how does the audience perceive the protagonist's (hero's) progress toward the visible, physical, and highly ironic goal.

On a logical level the roller coaster can be evaluated as to whether or not the protagonist is making objective progress or has experienced a set back.

On an emotional level the roller coaster can be evaluated in terms of the audience's fear for the protagonist's safety or eminent demise.

Often the two roller coaster "tracks" coincide.

One thing I have not talked or written about that much is how the heights and depths of the roller coaster track should escalate as the story continues, which is just the opposite of an amusement park's coaster, where the tallest hill is at the front. Your story's tallest hill and deepest valley should be at the end, the Climax in Act 3.  In my own writing I have taken the threats of the antagonist and listed them on a spreadsheet or scrap of paper and attempted to make sure that each successive threat was greater than the one before.

Here then is a generic list that will help you do that. I don't think I came up with it...found it on a Stickies' Note. Make up your own and create  your own for each story, and each subplot (arc) of each character's goal. If you came up with this list and sent it to me, or if I copied it off some other blog, please tell me and I'll give you credit. The higher the number the deeper the valley.
Action Scale for Roller Coaster Chart
0 establishing
1 transition
2 looks
3 friendly banter
4 debate between friends
5 talk between enemies - walk near enemy
6 threat threshold
7 slow chase - stalking
8 chase / threat of gun or capture
9 bullets fired
10 imminent death
Now here's another list like the above, sent to me by novelist Mary Connealy ( Mary writes Romanic Comedy Westerns. Fun reads. Back in 2010 we shared an email thread in which she wrote this to my response after reading her novel, "Petticoat Ranch" (Barbour, 2006). I had complained that she didn't kill off the bad guy. This excerpt from her email will give you an idea of her writing. Love it. (Sorry, Mary, I didn't ask your permission to use this, but I think it's past the statue of limitations...and it's deliciously good.)
Mary writes: 
I'm sorry I didn't kill Judd off, very bloodthirsty of you, but I know what you mean. I did stab a stake through his leg and I PROMISE YOU he was hanged, so rest easy. :) 
I've killed a few villains in my day. Read  Cowboy Christmas if you want a bad guy who is particularly dead at the end.  Deader than dead. I've made two notes of how bad guys die in fiction, movies, books,  whatever. 
First is the 'Good bad guy' syndrome. The good bad guys tend to die
while the bad bad guys go to prison. The moral there? Prison is worse than
death???  When the bad bad guy DOES die, you can judge how bad he is by the number of times he died.
1. Shot through the heart. Bad. 
2. Shot through the heart, stumble back into an electric grid and be
electrocuted, very bad. 
3. Shot through the heart, stumble back into an electric grid and be
electrocuted, then fall six stories, very horribly bad. 
4. Shot through the heart, stumble back into an electric grid and be
electrocuted, then fall six stories and land on a highway and get
run over by a semi, miserably ugly viciously bad. 
5. Shot through the heart, stumble back into an electric grid and be
electrocuted, then fall six stories and land on a highway and get
run  over by a semi, which overturns and explodes...well, you get
the progression.