Saturday, February 27, 2010

Killing Your Darlings: Spec Scripts as Burnt Offerings for the Hollywood Pyre

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


A spec script is a "speculative" screenplay, one that the Variety slanguage dictionary defines as being "shopped or sold on the open market, as opposed to one commissioned by a studio or production company." --- Wikipedia
Spec scripts for motion pictures, have two faces. There’s the real spec and there’s the wannabe spec. The real one is usually an original by an established screenwriter. The wannabe is usually an original by anyone else, mostly newcomers. And thanks to the system, the wannabe spec-writer has to get the job done, make it become real, with “both typing-hands tied behind his back.”

In fact, in most cases, the wannabe spec isn’t really a script for a movie at all. It’s a script for the read. Thanks to the deluge of material besieging Hollywood all the time, and the resulting utter despair of the legions of readers whose job it is to process it, wannabe specs are distortions of what professional screenplays really are, not to mention what they should be.

The distortion amounts to a pervasive erosion of any unique authorship the piece might have once had. The present system culls that submission herd of material – 50,000+ submissions per year - through a rigorous, downward-evolving standard. It compels that ever-leaner, ever more “operatic” and “universally-translatable” stories be written. That’s right: leaner, yet, bigger and dumber. Specs need to be the story equivalent of Ah-nold: 6-pack abs, 29-inch waists, 30-inch biceps, and an accent on the foreign. Where once you could tell a story of mystery and suspense, that story now needs to have a world-threatening mystery, with larger-than-life heroes and villains, yet told with haiku-like prose in which the dialogue is unimportant, if not altogether unnecessary, to the larger market.

Twenty years ago, acceptable page counts were 120 pages with 130 still within acceptable range. Some professional readers now look for 110, 105, even 95 pages. Where 3 page scenes were the average in years past, 1-2 page scenes are the order of the day now. Where action paragraphs could go 5-6 lines of text in the ‘70s (they were twice that 20 years earlier), the standard is now 2–3 text lines. Where one once had the entire first act to set up a script - more recently the first 10 pages - we now hear demands for a “killer first page” - even a “killer opening line” - as being required to avoid losing the studio reader. I’m not talking here about excessive camera directions, editing instructions, and other film jargon. That was chucked long ago – and, I agree, good riddance. I refer to story tissue: skin, muscle, even bone. And most especially, brain.

But the most egregious forced-expunging is to viewpoint, the writer’s vision of his story. This is truly unconscionable. Leaving politics aside, the real issue is in the effect to the writer’s vision of the story itself. Should said writer include any idiosyncratic or merely distinctive specifics (even written in ways that are internal to the action descriptions rather than overt camera or editorial instructions), the writer risks receiving his comeuppance for treading on the director’s responsibilities. Despite originating the story, said writer must not have an interpretation of it, nor a vision for it. Not even as a vision of the tale from which to begin, merely as a point of departure for the inevitable collaboration. 

Consider these comments from that terrific Lem Dobbs interview I recommended awhile back:

I’ve always thought of it as describing a movie on paper, that’s all.  There are scripts I’ve read, or once did, by favorite writers, that have never been made into movies, but I feel like I’ve seen them.  You should be able to “see” the movie when you read a script, even though there aren’t actors, there’s no music … but somehow it’s washed over you as if there were. 
But this also presupposes the right sort of reader, a dying breed, someone who might actually know what a movie is and be able to visualize it.  The lack of knowledge and experience -- of taste -- of people in the film business has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 
The generally accepted page count has decreased significantly from what it used to be.  As costs have increased.  So scripts judged “a fast read” now -- a man, his wife, his vampire mistress -- on a plane -- are often mistaken for good.  NORTH BY NORTHWEST or 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY require a little more cognitive effort from everybody.
Studio types even realized at some point that the term ‘high concept’ was making them look ridiculous, so now they say they want movies with ‘big ideas.’
Having worked as an agent, I’ve read a thousand or more submitted scripts and novels, myself. I pity the poor reader, wading as he does through that miserable swamp of spec-script sewage. Never, however, did I demand the material be tailored to my comfort. Are we to castrate and lobotomize all of what’s read to ease the life of that reader of swill? I guess so, because that’s exactly what we’re doing.

While this isn’t based on a scientific study, I believe movies aren’t significantly shorter than they were 20–30 years ago. They may, in fact, be slightly longer. So, this all points the finger at an unavoidable truth: those lean, mean, wannabe specs amount to throwaways, read-only pieces. They are disposable. They aren’t gonna get made in the form at which they are forced to come in. In fact most of the ones that get offers aren’t gonna get made at all. And such system-imposed mayhem is all in line with the notion that lean writing is poetry. But, while poetry is lean writing, lean writing isn’t always poetry. There are other terms for much of it: sketch, outline; certainly not story.

So, in effect, the industry requires wannabe spec-script writers to offer up the sacrifice of, at minimum, one good idea as payment to enter the (definitely not) “Promised Land.” And it wants them to know that that is no guarantee of entry. In fact it is almost gleeful in predicting that there will likely be many more of these burnt offerings before entry is granted – “you should expect to write ten scripts before you should ever expect to sell one.” Forget one, it demands ten of your “darlings”! And in some twisted version of the world, the one where, in the battle between art and commerce, commerce always wins, this makes complete sense.

Also from the Lem Dobbs interview:

…as former United Artists executive David Picker has said  …everything changed when investors stopped asking ‘How much can we lose?’ and instead started asking ‘How much can we make?’
Writers are used to multiple drafts and honing their craft. They are even used to stories not selling. But the notion that no saleable idea likely exists until the tenth or eleventh is, while lunacy, unfortunately also reality. Why? Because the market has squeezed down to an international demographic of mostly adolescent and post-adolescent males that suffers no variety in its film fare. And, no question about it, that’s a shame.

This all could just be writers crying in their beer except for the effect it is having on product. I’m not talking about wannabe specs, but rather the movies that are getting made. The stylistic that is required of wannabe specs has seeped into the larger industry. And while this is a stylistic that has a lot to recommend it, especially for contemporary thrillers and contemporary comedies, it should not apply across-the-board.

I personally like much of the effect the need for brevity compels in writers. Many films have benefited from it because it both appeals to the reader, and, done well, enables the writer to work more substance into the script. But brevity aside, all style to the exclusion of almost any substance has also resulted in too many scripts getting through that should not have been made as they were. The sizzle won out over the steak. Today, many films arrive in the theater brain-dead on arrival. They aren’t, as in the past, just bad to begin with. No, while not badly made, they have been made bad.

A classic example is the widely-praised film, Wild Things (see my analysis). This was intended to be a contemporary film noir, but it had so many twists and turns shoe-horned into its 95 minutes it ended up a caricature of, rather than a real, film noir. The character-development was so thin, the plot so preposterous, that I was still wondering as the end credits rolled if it wasn’t really a comedy about to finally reveal itself. It certainly was funny, but it was entirely unintentional. And it’s troubling how much praise this film has garnered. It’s evidence that audiences are changing to fit such product.

So, all of this begs the question: what should spec scripts be, then?

I’ve looked at it a long time, and I’ve had my comeuppance many times. Still do. This is because I refuse, and always will, to adhere strictly to the so-called rules. When it comes to story, whether it’s true or not, as a writer, I have to believe I know better than any reader how to realize my movie on paper. I don’t mean I know everything. I mean that when confronted with a new insight, I know best whether it fits my vision of the tale. So, I actively seek reaction and well-intended comments.

Most spec writers are well-acquainted with the readers waiting out there to issue that comeuppance without offering anything meaningful or useful. After awhile they realize they don’t have to accept such “gifts.” But if a suggestion recurs from reader to reader, or if it raises a valid issue, or makes an interesting suggestion or observation, I consider it gold. This is because I know that because I’m the writer, I am of necessity too close to sometimes “see the forest for the trees.” They’ll catch things that I’m too focused to see.

Spec scripts should be great reads with great movies clearly in evidence despite cosmetics like author-voice intrusions, or occasionally going beyond showing in order to tell. It’s one thing to constantly tell without showing, and another to get across an idea once or twice that would otherwise only emerge in the performance, direction, editing, or music. It’s always the degree with such things. Commit the “felony” three times and you’re probably out. But you must write to the edge when it comes to the rules. The script has to find ways to stand out, and the story concept itself must be so compelling that it out-weighs the transgression.

Many claim dialogue is greatly over-valued, especially in specs. This is because movies are now international products and will have to communicate to audiences unfamiliar with any particular American dialect. It’s also due to the nature of movies as a visual medium first and foremost. While I place a high value on the visual, I disagree, somewhat. Where a director like Alfred Hitchcock saw movies as purely visual, and the dialogue as only added later, perhaps valued at 10% of the whole or less, I put dialogue closer to the 40% mark. Why? Because the dialogue is one of the primary elements that attracts actors. Give them great lines, and they will sign on to a project almost regardless of how compelling the visuals are. Having come up during the silent era, like an old general, Hitchcock was still fighting “the last war.”

With the advent of sound, dialogue has been here to stay for over 80 years. It has the power to nail visual concepts that escape the power of the camera to articulate. It can provide rhythms and character nuances no image can equal. And, of course the reverse is also true. But that just means they’re closer to equal in value than “the visual-ists” claim. So I place great weight on great dialogue in specs. For me, at least three or four scenes have to have dialogue that “rings like a bell.”  But, too many, and the piece becomes “precious,” too cute to be believed. Balance, again, is the watch-word.

(Pardon the intrusion, but that was my problem with tv’s The West Wing, before which everyone seems to genuflect. Its dialogue was too precious, too cute.)

But the bottom line for specs, I feel, is that they exhibit that viewpoint that I’ve lamented gets excised, that writer’s vision. And this best emerges through the behavior of the characters. New writers usually see character-development as the character’s resumé, his backstory. It isn’t. Character-development is behavior – what’s said and done - under pressure, or story-altering behavior when it doesn’t cost them. Character-development is that character’s internal moral or ethical code emerging, behavior that is unique to that character alone. Couple such elements with the dialogue I described above and a bona fide “movie-concept,” and you can break a slew of rules and still survive the reader.

And that, my friends, is how I see it. I’m ready, now, for my comeuppance. #


Lee A. Matthias 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Studio Stories VII - Nocturnal Inspiration

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


In Editor, Patrick McGilligan’s book of interviews, Backstory 1, p. 167, screenwriter Philip Dunne commented:

If you get an idea in the middle of the night, it’s a good idea to get up and write it down, or it’s gone. There’s a famous story about a writer who always swore he got up and wrote his ideas down. He had a wonderful idea in the middle of the night once, got out his pad and pencil, and wrote it down. He went back to sleep—slept like a baby. He woke up, and he had written: “boy meets girl.”

Something like this actually happened for me, but it went the other way: it was actually good. It was before the novel, The Genesis Code, by John Case came out, and also before another book and movie I’ll mention below.

Not long after I was married, in the middle of the night, I suddenly sat straight up, scaring the hell out of my wife. “What’s wrong?” she yelled. I looked at her and said, “What if they cloned Christ from the blood in the Turin Shroud?” Needless to say, she wasn’t pleased with me, suffering as she did on occasion from insomnia. I made a note of it and went back to sleep.

The next day, I thought about it and decided it was probably too weird, so filed it away.

Then the John Case book came out and I saw it was more or less the same idea. Not long after that another one came out: Jurassic Park.

It was a valuable lesson: the zeitgeist waits for no one, use it or lose it. #


Lee A. Matthias

Sunday, February 21, 2010

You Know You're a Screenwriter When...

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


Kris Young, a teacher at UCLA’s screenwriting program has a nice little piece in the recent book of screenwriter interviews, Tales from the Script, Edited by Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman, ItBooks, HarperCollins, 2010, pp. 26-31. He talks about something he calls, “Kung Fu Screenwriting.” Based, as he says on Bruce Lee’s philosophies,
...there’s a difference between doing and being. When you venture forth to do screenwriting, like many people do, then the moment you stop, you’re not a screenwriter. But if you move toward the idea of being a writer, then it never leaves you. And I think that’s a higher thing to aspire to – to be a writer. You keep writing not necessarily to sell a script or to get a movie made, but because that is who you are (last italics, mine)
I look for people who are already self-motivated. People who already have a high level of interest in the subject – they’re really not gonna do anything else. They’re writing before school begins, they’re gonna keep writing when school stops. It’s not something they do, but it’s something they are (last italics, mine). 
Be a writer as opposed to someone who does writing. 
It may sound delusional or pompous as I have had no film of mine ever produced in a complete form, and I have only had options taken on my written work, but... I am a screenwriter. I realized this when I found myself working on yet another screenplay with the full awareness that it was not a movie I expected Hollywood would ever make. And I didn’t care. I had to tell myself this movie. 
I have worked as an agent, sold books to publishers for advances so high that the New York Times, no less, wrote about it as out-agenting the New York agencies. But I have no agent. I have sold scripts to major studios. But none was written by me. 
And now, I find I don’t even care. In fact, I maybe never have cared. It’s about the stories. I have to make these movies even if they never go before a camera. They go before my camera, the one in my head. So I guess I’m nuts, endlessly repeating the same thing and looking for a different result. The stories in my head make me tell them. Substitute “voices” for “stories” in that previous sentence and I meet the definition of insanity; probably without the substitution. 
Comedian, Jeff Foxworthy has made a career with the “You know you’re a redneck when...” jokes. They are a hilarious platform for observations about the culture. Me? I know I’m a screenwriter. I have no choice. It might be said that screenwriting has me
It begs the question, though: don’t you want someone to even read the stuff? Yes. I can’t deny that it is something I strive for. I have gone so far as to orchestrate table readings of my scripts. I did one once on a supernatural story I wrote, and afterward people were commenting that they were afraid to go home alone. So, I guess it was effective. And that one almost was bought by two producers with a deal at a mini-major who were riding the wave of a bona fide hit. Then the mini-major went down. That one had actually even won me an agent for a time. 
I once work-shopped a script at a well-known online website. Readers actually lavished praise on that particular script. It was almost embarrassing. That one won an option on the first and only submission I have ever made with it. Alas the option lapsed. Why don’t I try again? The subject has become over-saturated lately. But it will come round again someday. 
When I had finished it, I had decided to try it at the Nicholl competition. But it didn’t qualify because it was viewed as an adaptation - it was a prequel to a classic novel. It had a couple characters from the novel, but it was a wholly new story from top to bottom. No matter, it went down on the technicality.   
Hey, Nicholl! You should have a sub-category for such material when there are enough entries, or open it up for adaptations every three years. You are ignoring legitimate work. Remember Clueless (adapted from Jane Austen’s Emma)? 
I wrote another script that could in no way be called an adaptation, though it was an updating of a 19th Century ghost story, wholly altered. The only commonalities were a character name, a stage prop, and a starting premise. Only the Nicholl would call it an adaptation, and then, only if I told them. But then, I guess they would have called The Creature from the Black Lagoon an adaptation of King Kong... if somebody had pointed it out to them. And, while it was, it sure as Hell wasn’t! Anyway, every time I show this script to someone, they miss what is really going on and dismiss it as a fairly routine tale. It’s not. With its playing with perception and subjective paranoia, the written word does not represent the utterly riveting movie it would be. So, I’d have to make it myself. As Ethan Edwards might say, “That’ll be the day.” 
And now, here I am with another story ready to go to script. I’ve worked on it off and on for years. I’ve finally gotten it to what I call a “working treatment” – for my use only, a 50 page single-spaced telling of the story as it would play onscreen. I’m ready for the first draft. Problem is, it’s set in Hollywood. And we all know, Hollywood never likes to make movies about Hollywood. Oh, they do them, but not with so-called “newbies.” I’ve wrestled with this issue all along, always telling myself that it doesn’t matter, that someone will see it as the really cool caper movie it actually is. But that little devil “on the other shoulder” just laughs and laughs at such delusions. And then I realized that, no matter, I don’t care. I want to finish telling myself the movie. That drawer has room for one more. #  
Lee A. Matthias

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Studio Stories VI - Terry Gilliam & The Naked Lady

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.

In Gilliam on Gilliam, Edited by Ian Christie, Faber and Faber, 1999, pp. 44 & 49, writer-director Terry Gilliam described some censorship troubles he experienced when he was doing animation for ABC’s The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine:
There was a piece of animation I was doing on fat, and I wanted to use a Rubenesque nude, but everyone said,
“Oh, I don’t know if you can do that, this is for US television.”
I said,
“But these are classical paintings!”’
So they referred it to the [network] Standards and Practices lady and it was duly censored... I hunted around and found a rear view of a [Francois] Boucher reclining nude. And it came back with a half-crown circle around the offending area, the crack in her bum:
“If you can cover this up we can do it.”
Well, I wasn’t going to do that, and by now I was really pissed off, so I got one of (comedian, Ronnie Barker’s) nudes - it was a naked lady sitting with her legs crossed - and I cut out her breasts and then a fan shape out of her groin, and put her against a background. You could see through all the naughty bits. The Standards and Practices lady still said,
“So I can’t show the naughty bits, and I can’t not show the naughty bits?”
I went berserk:
“That’s it! I’m finished.”
The answer came back:
“But you’ve got a contract.”
So I started doing cartoons as revenge. One animation had a full minute of no movement... I did another one in which someone rushes into a room, turns the light off and everything goes black. The scene is played with sound effects—animated radio. That was my response to their ridiculous censorship, and I have to admit it produced some interesting cartoons: when the blood starts boiling some of the best ideas come pouring out.
Oh, yeah. Been there. #
Lee A. Matthias

Monday, February 15, 2010

Arts and Crafts - Bo Goldman vs. Philip Dunne

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


So, what is screenwriting, an art or a craft?


Screenwriting is an art:

In Zen and the Art of Screenwriting, 1996, Silman-James Press, p. 55, author and interviewer William Froug interviewed celebrated screenwriter, Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Melvin and Howard, Scent of a Woman, etc.), who says on the subject of art vs. craft:

I never saw a lawyer in my life until I started making some money, and then I got one lawsuit after another. (Laughter) And I remember one of these lawyers, representing someone who’s coming out of the woodwork claiming I’d just stolen their life, said something about my ‘craft.’ Well, you know, it’s not a craft. Whenever I hear the word craft, I think of a rainy day at Camp Wigwam, where you throw darts and make leather pouches. It’s not a craft, it’s an art. It takes the sensibility of an artist. And a lot of great writers who are novelists or journalists can’t do it. (italics, mine)

Screenwriting is a craft:

On the other hand, screenwriter Philip Dunne (The Robe, Ten North Frederick, The Agony and the Ecstacy) in Backstory 1, Edited by Patrick McGilligan, University of California Press, 1986, p. 166, said:

I agree with my old friend Jo Swerling, one of the earliest screenwriters, who said screenwriting is not so much an art as like fine cabinetmaking. I think that’s right. Nunnally (Johnson) used to use that analogy, too... We never claimed to be artists, but we thought we were good craftsmen.

So which is it?

Well... the way I see it, it’s both.

When I first started college, I was an art major. And the one thing they were Nazis about back then was something called, “craftsmanship.” We were not to produce work that didn’t exhibit quality concerning materials, assembly or construction, execution of the concept, basic neatness, and a spare-ness that demonstrated no unnecessary elements. This had nothing to do with whether the work was good and/or meaningful as expression. This was all about the artist’s equivalent of good carpentry. So Philip Dunne seems to be winning.

But Bo Goldman’s view is valid, too. He refers to it as it aspires to be: “it takes...” He talks about it requiring “the sensibilities of an artist.” I suspect that what he means is that, for it to be of any great value, it must exhibit things like sensitivity, beauty, a range of emotion, meaning and even profundity, subtlety and succinctness, potency or power, freshness and originality, sub-text, compelling characters, verisimilitude and universal truths.

These are things writers must try for in their works, but they are not, and must not become, requirements. As Niko Stumpo of the Wooster Collective says, “Art has never been made while thinking of art.” I would venture that the artist who always sets himself the task of producing art is both doomed to inevitably fail and fooling himself that he always can.

So, for me, screenwriting is both. From the screenwriter’s perspective, it must be a craft. And when it best meets the needs of its audience, every so often it ascends to an art. #


Lee A. Matthias

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Studio Stories V – Richard Matheson Puts Steven Spielberg on the Table

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.

Richard Matheson (novels - I Am Legend, Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come; screenwriter - Duel, The Twilight Zone and Amazing Stories tv series) is one of the great modern age tellers of fantastic tales. He has an innate ability to find the compelling idea and frame it in a very accessible story. I was thrilled to encounter him in past years at more than one World Fantasy Con. He was the most humble, soft-spoken fellow one could hope for. And his son, Richard Christian Matheson is no different.
Matheson, in an interview by Patrick McGilligan in Backstory 3, University of California Press, 1997, on pp. 252-3, recalled:
...I never went into stories based on characters. I went into stories based on a story idea. Then I put characters in the story that I hoped would be believable and realistic in real life and maybe move you. But I’m a storyteller. The story is the thing. They can put that on my tombstone: ‘Storyteller.’  
...some of my ideas would come from other books (and movies)... someone would mention something... and I would pounce on it like a tiger... For example, (in Charles Fort’s book Wild Talents,) he describes, literally, a sequence that I made a whole short story out of... He said, in future times, psychic girls would fight wars; they will visualize terrible things happening to soldiers. And I got a great story out of that.  
I went to see a Dracula film and the idea came to me: If one vampire was scary, what if the whole world was full of vampires? That became I Am Legend. Another time I went to see a comedy, and (the character) was leaving an apartment and he put on (someone else’s) hat and it came down way over his ears. At that second I thought, ‘What if a guy put his own hat on and that happened?’ That’s where I got the idea for The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Matheson also described being in a story session with Steven Spielberg and the writing staff for their television series, Amazing Stories:
I remember an idea I came up with in one meeting. The premise was that, in the future, a spacecraft would come down and the aliens would examine this strange environment. Then, when they took off, the down angle would reveal, gradually, that it had been Disneyland. I came up with the notion that in the spacecraft, the aliens would remove their helmets and big ears would pop up, and we’d see that they were giant mice; they were turned on because they had found the source of their god. I remember Steven slowly laying his face down on the table - he was so amused by the notion. Unfortunately, it was never made.
Matheson might be called the Nikola Tesla of fiction, a seemingly bottomless fount of incredible ideas. #
Lee A. Matthias

Monday, February 8, 2010

Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.

In the interest of helping writers find ways to get their stuff on the page, what follows is pulp writer, Lester Dent’s approach to writing those stories he published in the pulp magazines like The Black Mask. Its run went from 1920 to 1951, and included such greats as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Earle Stanley Gardner, not to mention Lester Dent. Dent, creator of Doc Savage, once wrote an entire novel in a single weekend as his house was built around him. Kids bothering you while you write? Try hammers and saws. I’m not kidding when I say this guy could pump it out!

Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula
(Thanks to Mercurie at his A Shroud of Thoughts blog, posted November 14, 2009.)

This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.

No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.

The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else.

Here's how it starts:


One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.

A different murder method could be--different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with deadly germs?

If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary. Scribes who have their villain's victims found with butterflies, spiders or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag.

Probably it won't do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque with murder methods.

The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones.

Here, again one might get too bizarre.

Unique locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure--thing that villain wants--makes it simpler, and it's also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you've lived or worked. So many pulpateers don't. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.

Here's a nifty much used in faking local color. For a story laid in Egypt, say, author finds a book titled "Conversational Egyptian Easily Learned," or something like that. He wants a character to ask in Egyptian, "What's the matter?" He looks in the book and finds, "El khabar, eyh?" To keep the reader from getting dizzy, it's perhaps wise to make it clear in some fashion, just what that means. Occasionally the text will tell this, or someone can repeat it in English. But it's a doubtful move to stop and tell the reader in so many words the English translation.

The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book, finds the Egyptian for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.

Here's the second installment of the master plot.

Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word part, put the following:


1. First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved--something the hero has to cope with.
2. The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
3. Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
4. Hero's endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
5. Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.

SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE? Is there a MENACE to the hero? Does everything happen logically?

At this point, it might help to recall that action should do something besides advance the hero over the scenery. Suppose the hero has learned the dastards of villains have seized somebody named Eloise, who can explain the secret of what is behind all these sinister events. The hero corners villains, they fight, and villains get away. Not so hot.

Hero should accomplish something with his tearing around, if only to rescue Eloise, and surprise! Eloise is a ring-tailed monkey. The hero counts the rings on Eloise's tail, if nothing better comes to mind. They're not real. The rings are painted there. Why?


1. Shovel more grief onto the hero.
2. Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:
3. Another physical conflict.
4. A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.

NOW: Does second part have SUSPENSE? Does the MENACE grow like a black cloud? Is the hero getting it in the neck? Is the second part logical?

DON'T TELL ABOUT IT! Show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader--show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM.

When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed page. It is reasonable to expect these minor surprises to sort of inveigle the reader into keeping on. They need not be such profound efforts. One method of accomplishing one now and then is to be gently misleading. Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until--surprise! The glass pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery.

Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things which make him stick in the reader's mind. TAG HIM.



1. Shovel the grief onto the hero.
2. Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
3. A physical conflict.
4. A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.

DOES: It still have SUSPENSE? The MENACE getting blacker? The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix? It all happen logically?

These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.

These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once.

The idea is to avoid monotony.

ACTION: Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action.

ATMOSPHERE: Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.

DESCRIPTION: Trees, wind, scenery and water.


1. Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.
2. Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)
3. The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.
4. The mysteries remaining--one big one held over to this point will help grip interest--are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.
5. Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the "Treasure" be a dud, etc.)
6. The snapper, the punch line to end it.

HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line? The MENACE held out to the last? Everything been explained? It all happen logically? Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING? Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?
For those who are interested, several copies of his master plot formula can be found at the Lester B. Dent Collection, part of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection--Columbia, at the University of Missouri. The collection was donated to the University by Norma Dent on February 8 and 18, 1985. An addition to the collection was made by W. Ryerson Johnson (American pulp writer who also wrote on
Doc Savage) on January 23, 1991.
Well-read screenwriting students will probably recognize the parallels in Dent’s four-part approach to that of Syd Field’s 30 page units, assembled as Act 1, Act 2 (to mid-point), Act 2 (after mid-point), Act 3. Deeper investigation will expose the similarity to Paul Joseph Gulino’s Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach, though his idealized sequences number 8. Still, the sign-posts in each are very similar, and the divisions merely the difference between the needs of a 6,000 word short story and a 25,000 word screenplay.
Nonetheless, Dent’s approach could be taken and used almost without adjustment for writing screenplays. It can even be used for high-end literary tales if one simply adjusts the definitions applied to the terms. Instead of action and physical violence, for example, it can be social or political maneuvering and psychological violence. The formula, or template, as I prefer to call it, is highly versatile. So one could write, I daresay, an indie script about serious issues without one bullet, car crash, or explosion. So, having trouble with your story? Take a cue from Lester Dent and beat it to a pulp. #
Lee A. Matthias 

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Studio Stories IV – The Front Page Meets Gunga Din Meets Sinatra

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.
In my forthcoming book, LATERAL SCREENWRITING: Using the Power of Lateral thinking to Write the Great American Movie, in a chapter on creative idea-generation, I discuss one method of creating viable stories: update or transform a previous story into a fresh one. We’re probably all familiar with the example of Jane Austen’s novel, Emma transforming into the movie, Clueless. And there’s the Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner updating to You’ve Got Mail. There are literally hundreds of examples of this, but several favorites of mine include:
  • Mutiny on the Bounty became Red River – a voyage on the high seas became a cattle drive on the prairie.
  • High Noon became Outland – A lawman facing criminals in a town that has abandoned him became an inter-planetary lawman facing criminals in space.
  • The Tempest became Forbidden Planet – Shakespeare’s tale of magic and mystery on an island became a tale of science fiction on a planet in another star system.
  • Romeo and Juliet became West Side Story – Shakespeare’s tale of tragic love updates to Manhattan’s upper west side in the late ‘50s, with music.
  • Plutarch’s and Livy’s variations of the story of The Rape of the Sabine Women became Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Sobbin’ Women, which, in turn, became the musical, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.
  • The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven became Battle Beyond the Stars became A Bug’s Life – Heroes come to a town and drive off invaders.
There are two interesting stories related to this approach. The first is found in screenwriter and author, Max Wilk’s book on Hollywood screenwriters from the golden age of movies, Schmucks With Underwoods, Applause, 2004, pp. 177-8. Garson Kanin tells of the time screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote Gunga Din (named after the Kipling poem, but the story was theirs) and put it out for bid. Every studio but Columbia had made an offer. When their agent, Leland Hayward asked legendary Columbia chief, Harry Cohn why he hadn’t made an offer, he said he already owned it, that he bought it seven years earlier from the same writers, only then it was called The Front Page (their hit play about the newspaper business, made as a movie at least four times, first as The Front Page, then as His Girl Friday, then again, by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond in the ‘70’s with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, as The Front Page, and finally in the late ‘80’s, this time in the world of tv news, as Switching Channels – speaking of that, somebody ought to take it to the internet – are you listening, screenwriters?). Anyway, Hayward laughed at Cohn’s assertion.
“What’s so funny?” asked Cohn.
Gunga Din, said Hayward, patiently, “has absolutely nothing to do with The Front Page.”
“Have you read it?” asked Cohn.
“Of course I’ve read it.”
“And you don’t see it’s the same picture?”
“Harry,” said Hayward, “thank you very much. You’ve given me a great Harry Cohn story. I’ll be dining out on this for weeks.”
But when Kanin, who was relating Hayward’s story, read Gunga Din, he realized Cohn was right: Hecht and MacArthur had taken not only the story, but the characters of The Front Page, changed the period, the locale, and the occupations. Kanin lauded Cohn for his sharp observation, but, in my view, the joke was on Cohn because Gunga Din was a hit. In fact, it became a classic, and nobody ever noticed its pedigree, if indeed it was as he says – I find the similarity quite a stretch. Nonetheless, the principle (and, if true, Hecht and MacArthur’s ingenuity) is a lesson to screenwriters.
The other story is from screenwriter, W.R. Burnett, in Backstory 1, p.78. Burnett describes how Frank Sinatra came up with the idea to “kid” Gunga Din:
“I got a call from ‘Swanie’ (H.N. Swanson, agent) to go to Columbia to have lunch with Frank Sinatra, which I did. Frank said he had an idea to take Gunga Din (1939) and kid it. Good idea. But Frank didn’t know what to do with it. So I went home and thought about it and figured out a way to do it. I put it out West with this fanatical tribe of Indians, and that’s Sergeants Three. I wrote a treatment and gave it to Howard W. Koch, the producer... Finally he got him on the phone and said, ‘Frank, what do you want us to do?’ Frank said, ‘Write the script.’ I said, ‘I wrote it.’ Frank said, ‘Howard, what do you think?’ Howard said I think it’s swell.’ I don’t think Koch ever read it. I don’t think Frank ever read it. So they shot my first draft. Scared the hell out of me, you know.”
So, if anyone’s ever stuck for an idea, think back to those stories, books, and films that have really touched you or that you love. Is there a way to update one? Can you put the essential events into a new milieu, a new setting or genre, and make it new again? There’s always that idea about updating The Front Page to the internet era ala You’ve Got Mail. I don’t ask for anything but a thank you in the credits. #
Lee A. Matthias