Monday, June 17, 2013

Revelation, Story, and Plot in a Script for a Short Film

by Bill Johnson


I teach that a story creates movement and the movement transports an audience. This dynamic holds whether the story is a novel, screenplay, play, short story, or short script.
The language used to talk about stories often conveys movement: story arc, hero’s journey, plot points.

Stories that fail to establish they are moving toward some point appear, well, pointless. The longer a story goes without establishing a clear sense of purpose, the more likely readers will feel a story is not going anywhere.

But, in a short film script (under ten pages), there’s an almost exception to this basic rule. A well-written short script can build to a single, powerful revelation that doesn’t depend so much on character arc or journey or plot or meaning, but on quickly building to that final, intriquing twist.

An example of a story with a great twist is An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge, written by Ambrose Bierce.  The short story is set during the Civil War. A young man is to be hung, but the rope breaks and he escapes. Just as he reaches home and his young wife, he hears a snap and we realize he imagined that escape, and his life just ended with his being hung.

Even if you haven’t read this story, you’ve seen this revelation used in movies (Jacob’s Ladder, The Jacket, The Sixth Sense).

These kind of stories are also called O’Henry’s, named after an author who wrote short stories with an artful twist.

But I said this is an ‘almost’ exception. Almost because these stories need to be well-written to work (stumbling over awkward, obscure language can detail the quick movement to the twist). The bigger exception is, what happens when stories with twist endings are competing against a story with structure?

I write ten minute plays. Years ago, I wrote a ten minute play called The Baggage Handler, about a couple checking in their baggage for their next lives together. It was a play that asked audiences to put themselves into that situation.

When the play was done as part of a festival in New York, I went back to attend. Since this was just a few years after 911, just about all the other plays had the same twist/revelation, that the characters involved were dealing with the aftermath of 911. My play had a revelation, but also characters with clearly defined goals and a plot. My play won the festival because the other plays with the same revelation divided the votes.

Bringing this back to FilmLab, several scripts were written to build to a single clever revelation. Those stories competed against each other.

If you’re going to write a short script, are you hitting the basics? Does your script have a beginning, middle, and end, start on page one, has a main character who wants something? Minor characters who each have a purpose that impacts what the main character wants and also defines them? A landscape that interacts with the characters?

Being clever is great, but creating a short script with a great twist AND a powerful story, that’s a winning combination.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Tips on Writing a Screenplay

by Bill Johnson
I teach an introduction to screenwriting class through Portland Community College. The course covers how to format and structure a screenplay, marketing, contests and outlets of the finished script, including writing a query to an agent, manager, or producer. Students work on the opening scenes of a screenplay and learn how to write a movie script.


One of the most common problems for someone writing a first script is what I call 'watch the movie, write down the details.' By this I mean mentally watching the scenes of a film script and writing down the details of what you see. This leads to a first script that is a collection of details, what characters are doing. 'Mary, blonde and athletic, walked across the room. John, stocky, male, 45, picked up the book.' These kind of flat, descriptive details are tedious to read and fail to convey the dramatic purpose of a scene.

Students will be helped in this class to replace that kind of language with a visual language appropriate for a movie script. A good resource for studying screenplays is Drews Script-o-rama.com, where scripts can be downloaded and read.

Another place that students become blocked is coming up with a sequence of scenes. In this class, I teach a 3/5 card system for organizing ideas. Each student is asked to carry some 3/5 cards around, and each time they have an idea for a scene, or dialogue, or some understanding of a character, they write it on a card, one idea to a card. This frees student from needing to understand what comes next, with just a focus on coming up with ideas. It can be very liberating. I suggest students do this until they have 40-50 cards, then start looking at how those cards can be put into some kind of order as scenes.

One of the five sessions of the class will be spent breaking down a movie like Sleepless in Seattle, which has a very transparent story structure. Many new writers to screenwriting are what I call blind imitators. They think they are doing what successful screenwriters are doing, but in reality they aren't. Conveying that Tom Hanks character in Seattle is overwhelmed by grief is different than writing that his character has brown hair and an average build.

Whether or to obtain copyright for a script is another issue students wrestle with. Technically, anything someone writes, they hold the copyright for. If you are just writing a first script and have little expectation that anything will happen with it, you don't absolulely need to pay for copyright. That said, I've been asked several times to show that I held copyright to a script, and it was a great help to have a signed copyright form when a co-writer claimed sole credit for a script we'd written together. To me, it's just part of the cost of doing business.

If a student wants to show a script to anyone in Hollywood, they do need to register their script with the WGAw (Writers Guild of America West) or WGAe, for Writers Guild of America East. Studios will not read a script that has not been registered with the WGA or submitted by a WGA certified agent.

If, by some stroke of great good fortune a studio agreed to read a student script, the other option is to have an entertainment attorney submit the script.

Final Draft is a program I recommend to students. It's a full-featured program used by production companies and producers in Hollywood.


CeltX is a free program that can be used to format a movie script. Using a formatting program saves a tremendhous amount of time.

The goal of this class is that students be able to leave the class with an ability to break down and understand the movies they are watching outside of class, as a technique to teach themselves how to write a movie script.

Good luck.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Using URL Titles for Promotion of a Website

by Bill Johnson
I'm taking a great class in SEO from John Ellis, creator of the The Web Warrior Series for writers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ti5wIWlRTw8) When I created my Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing! website in the late 90's (the title a reflection on what I'd learned from Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing), my main and only impulse about urls was that they be short.


So, for example, my essay on the movie Lethal Weapon was wdetect.htm.

Short and sweet, but it had no link to the actual title of the movie, detectives, weapons, or Mel Gibson's religious views.

Neither did the url help anyone find my website http://www.storyis promise.com

And, to be blunt, anyone who didn't know about my site who typed in a search for 'how to write a movie script' was probably not going to find a referral to www.storyispromise.com or wdetech.htm

I'm now going through the slow process of rethinking and redoing my old urls (while leaving the old ones up to date for people who link to them). I want them to reflect both what I'm saying in a particular article, and to have something in the title that helps an audience find the article.

When I've thought about why I didn't learn SEO when I was younger, I came to two realizations. One, for me learning about SEO by searching the term on Google was like standing on a beach and looking out over an ocean of information, and not knowing what I needed to learn or where to start, or what that big black fin in the water meant. So I didn't go in.

Also, this was during a time when there was a HUGE debate on the web about Black Hat SEO and White Hat SEO. (Black Hat SEO being about ways to understand how Google ranked pages and use that to create things like link farms to create artificial links to a web site, White Hat SEO being about ways to create valuable content and promote it in useful ways).

Looking out over the war zone, I couldn't begin to figure out what I needed to learn or even figure out what Grey Hat SEO (a mixture of the two) was about, or whether or how I should use SEO.

Besides, I told myself, I'm not selling Ginsu knives.

Then the e-book explosion hit, and my trade paperback sales dried up, and my e-book sales never took off. I knew I needed to do something, but I didn't know what.

Then I met John and started his SEO class. And boy has it been a revelation about what was relevant to me, and how to 'reel it in' from that ocean of information I faced.

For people who can't take John's class, I recommend you watch some videos at The Challenge (http://www.challenge.co/training/)  Each video has an introduction, and a longer video that explores what's set out in the introduction.

Now I need to get back to work on my web site.

Good luck with yours.

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Bill Johnson is the author of A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling. Promise is about the mechanics of telling a story, Deep Characterization (a section of the book) is about how the mechanics break down when people write stories to process their personal issues in life), and the Spirit of Storytelling is about how great storytelling relates to the conscious, subconscious, and superconscious minds. This is a book aimed at people seeking a deeper understanding of storytelling, or at least an answer to why no one is buying their self-published novel. Available at Amazon  and Smashwords.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

How I Came to Understand the Difference Between REO and SEO

When I first heard the term SEO, I wondered, isn’t that a rock band from the 90’s?

A coincidence, I created my website, Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing, in the mid-90’s using HTML 1. I had the help and guidance of playwright and screenwriter Charles Deemer, who was early to recognize the value of the internet for writers.
Like a Duckbill Platypus, my website fit in a niche and, for me, ‘worked’ as intended, as a vehicle for me to express my thoughts on storytelling, in the same way that Duckbill Platypus’ probably talked shop about salt water crocodiles.

As I added content to my website, I got visitors from around the world, and I was happy.

By the by, I added new content to my text-heavy website, and even scattered around the latest innovation, blue bars.

A few years later, I hired a friend to create a CSS style sheet for my site (which I didn’t mistake for Credence Clearwater Revival). I wasn’t sure what CSS was, either, but I was content to just keep adding text-heavy articles.

Until my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, was published, and a new purpose crept into my website, like a Tasmanian Devil approaching in the middle of the night. I now added promoting my book to my site, but my architecture didn’t change, I just added a few static images to go along with all that text.

Which, in evolutionary terms, takes me to about 2011, when the e-book asteroid hit Earth, and I couldn’t get my Duckbill Platypus to evolve, grow wings, and get me outta there.

Reeling from all the traditionally published burning books falling from the sky, I stumbled forward into getting my book available on Kindle, then Smashwords.
I promoted all this on my website, and like a baby Wombat emerging from its mother’s pouch, I thought I would immediately be selling thousands of inexpensive e-books and laugh, I say, laugh at my good fortune.

Without really changing a thing about my website.

Well, everyone knows what happens when a Duckbill Platypus, a Tasmanian Devil, and a Wombat walk into a bar, so I won’t bore anyone with the familiar punch line about putting the tab on someone’s bill, but I had a vague feeling that somehow my lack of sales were because my website had become an antique, and not one I could sell on Pawn Stars (#pawnstars).

Then I met John Ellis, of Portland Internet Design, who, like a Duckbill Platypus with burning wings appearing in the sky, explained to me what SEO meant, and how to use it.

So now I’m prepared to re-engineer my website from the REO era to the SEO one.

I don’t expect this to be easy, but even getting a Twinkee out of its wrapper requires a minimum of concentration and effort, so I’m on my way.

As John would say, “May the Flaming Duckbill be With Me.”

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.