One of my script consulting teachers, Don Bohlinger, professor at the USC film department, taught me this:
“Each scene is either a chase or an escape.”
It is not only true for scenes with actual chases in action movies, but for basically every scene with more than one characters in it, and it is even true for scenes with a single character who has an inner conflict.
Today I found this quote by screenwriter and director Mike Nichols:
“Every scene is either a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation.” (source)
This also seems to be a good way to look at the scenes you write or analyze, especially if you check your draft before doing a major rewrite or prepare notes for a script meeting.
Questions you might want to ask:
Does each scene have a conflict?
What is this conflict about?
If it is more than one person: Who has a high status, who has the low status?
Who is chasing/seducing/fighting whom and why?
Who is trying to escape and why?
And do the characters switch status during the scene( which I personally always find interesting)?
Pitch consultant Stephanie Palmer writes that you should not tell the decision-makers in a pitch meeting how they should feel about your story. And I totally agree. Saying something like ““Everyone is going to want to see this”, or “This is the best thing you’ll read this year” makes you look arrogant and annoys the people in the room.
I want to add that I often read sentences like these in written form in pitch papers. I am sure that the writers mean well – they want to get across that they have done their homework and know how to position their project in the market. But it always comes across in a wrong and sometimes even embarrassing way. So please avoid this. Thank you.
P.S.: I also checked out Stephanie Palmers website Good In A Room, which is a really great resource about pitching in the film industry. For example her post structuring a pitch meeting – really good advice.
From time to time I am giving lectures on pitching a story. I think I can stop that now, because most of the things you need to know are being said in this video. Writer and director Tony Gilroy hears a few loglines and gives his opinion on the storylines.
Footnote: Please let us not forget that making a movie is ALWAYS a very expensive and time consuming process, if you do it in a professional way and without exploiting yourself end everyone around you. If you want to sell a screenplay, you have to do your homework, step into the shoes of a producer for a moment and try to see your script through their eyes. And for me this is what the video is about.
These are the most important points for me:
The high costs of a movie can almost always be predicted after reading only the logline.
The risk of gathering money for an expensive movie that is not adapted from a well known prior material is very high. If on top of that the script comes from an unknown writer, producers will probably stay away from the project.
A story that matches in tone and in some fragments of the story to well known other movies has a big chance of getting made. But the downside is that there is a huge competition in the market for such projects. You have to find the right amount of originality for these stories.
Is the script castable?
You need a really good title.
If the basic concept and the concept of ideas is so complicated that you can hardly get it in the logline, the pitch will most likely fail. (Which sounds reasonable, because how will you sell it to the audience then?)
What is the tone?
Before all of the European Arthouse film lovers start complaining in my comments, let me add something: Of course you can break those rules. Of course there are dozens of great movies which are successful nevertheless. And of course there are many movies of high artistic value, that are excellent and compelling just because they don’t stick to any rules. But the vast majority of movies is made to find an audience beyond the film festival circuit.
And if someone says “But if I stick to those rules the result will be the same old mediocre recycled stories again and again!” – let me tell you something about my approach to my work: I personally love constraints. Because they are a challenge – how can I bend the “corset” from the inside and create something new withing these constraints? I think, if with every new project that sits on my table literally everything would be possible, I would have quit my job a long time ago, because there is no challenge and I would be bored to hell. But maybe this is just me.
When I am reading a screenplay there is one tool that is frequently used by writers, but I did not know that there is a specific word for it until now. This word is “callback”:
It works like this: A character has a specific line in his dialog. In the end the line is repeated, but it has a different meaning and is loaded with emotion. Maybe it is a line that is said by a minor character to the main character, and in the end it is repeated by the main character himself (who has finally understood what the line really is about, emotionally). Or the line is repeated by the same character. In any case it is a very effective tool for emotionally charging an important moment of the story, especially aaround the break into the third act or in the third act.