Writing Progressive Dialog

I have a project.

I acquired the script a few years back and I dug it back up. I had fallen in love with the story but, for one reason or another, it got shelved in the creative process.

As I started reading the most recent draft of this project that I had been so passionate about I started to think… “YUCK!” So I stopped and wondered why I had thought it so right before and so bad now.

I broke it all down and took the emotion out of it.

  • The beats were still there.
  • The story was unique and fun.
  • The characters were true individuals with their own voice.
  • The dialog?

OMG! (That’s my inner school girl talking).

It was horrendous. It was so bad, so on the nose, that if I didn’t personally love the version that I had in mind (skewed as it obviously was) I would have tossed this sucker in the trash.

So I pulled up my emails and story notes. What had I been thinking?

All my notes were about story elements, character development, beats… and then I saw it: “We’ll work on dialog with the next pass.

Whew, at least I wasn’t an idiot back then and just didn’t notice it. I had known the dialog was horrible, but my memories weren’t as 20/20.

Fixing dialog is considered part of the polish… and something that is not necessarily worthy of a screenwriting credit. More precisely, it gets left up to arbitration. According to the WGA Screen Credit Policy:

For example, there have been instances in which every line of dialogue has been changed and still the arbiters have found no significant change in the screenplay as a whole. On the other hand, there have been instances where far fewer changes in dialogue have made a significant contribution to the screenplay as a whole.

Story is key, words are extra. Although the words coming out of the actors mouths can pull you right out of the film. So why is this?

Well, if you’ve ever been on a movie set, the words spoken are changed constantly. Sometimes by the actor. Sometimes by the director. Suggestions fly, especially when something is not working. Actors ad lib with what feels right. Its a creative process.

But that’s no excuse for BAD DIALOG.

Good dialog needs:

A good use of metaphor, insinuation, hints, sarcasm, allusion… you know, the way people actually communicate with each other. The word is a “that’s what she said” joke waiting to happen.

No Exposition!
Listen to conversations between people. Even when they are talking about their day the words don’t tell the story, they are the story. In a movie, that’s even worse. We can WATCH what’s happening, so don’t tell me.

Or, in this case, lack of grammar. People do not speak grammatically correct unless they are teaching a class on proper use of grammar. People use short cuts, implications, hints… yeah, subtext. So don’t spell it out.

And a whole lot more.

Best way to write good dialog? Go hang out in public places and eavesdrop.  Really LISTEN, to people’s conversations. Friends speak differently than strangers. Lovers speak differently than enemies. Different age ranges communicate differently within their cohort than with people that are not.

I guess I have a lot of notes to still give.

Should I Save the Cat with a Hero’s Journey in Three Acts?

Webb Pickersgill asked:

The industry is complex, and I know there is no one answer, but I’d like to hear your commentary on the following subject: Following the “Save the Cat!” blueprint seems to be a sure-fire way of at least having a chance of getting your screenplay any sort of actual success. Agreed, it is solid, proven, and widely accepted by audiences worldwide. However, we are artists and we love to break the mold. Rather, we are always children and part of us always wants to rebel against the “parents” that tell us how things should be. Under what circumstances do you see the mold being broken, and being properly rewarded for it? Of course “properly” is the subjective here, if you rate success based on revenue, societal impact, or some other measure. Financial success is the easy measure, so I challenge you to find an answer that uses other sources for value as well as money. Nonetheless, I’d like to hear your thoughts, to give the artists inside us some hope that being a rebel is rewarding, because deep inside you know you want something new and different. Artists love finding a creative way!

OK, you opened a can of worms that might get me crucified but the fact is:  “Save the Cat” and any other screenwriting paradigm out there are just tools.  That’s it.  They help new writers to, well, hit their beats.  Make sure they get the key elements needed to tell a story, but the key is telling a good story.

Save the Cat! was published in 2005.  There was nearly 100 years of cinema before Save the Cat.  Syd Field’s Screenplay, probably the grand daddy screenwriting book of them all, was published in 1979.  There was decades of cinema before that as well.  People were writing good, solid, screenplays long before the guides and paradigms were drafted.

Corey Mandell, screenwriter and professor at UCLA, wrote a nice blog post about this very topic.  Its all summed up in a story he relates from a guest speaker in one of his classes:

He then gave her three scripts written to one of the popular structure books advocating what must happen on pages 1 to 10, 10 to 20, 20 to 30, and so forth.  He told her the first three scripts were realscreenplays and the other three were bullshit and her job was to never let a bullshit script cross his desk.

It’s not that someone used the guidelines with any particular paradigm, its when they follow them to a fault.  For example, Save the Cat says:

page number 12 Catalyst A life changing event that propels the hero out of the comfort zone and confronts him with the need to act in order to restore the balance
pages 12-25 Debate Sometimes the hero has a choice after the catalyst event, sometimes not. In any case, the pages between catalyst and break into act two should show how daunting the task ahead is, for example by having the hero struggle with the decision or show how he and/or others hesitate face the unavoidable.

Do you really think it matters if the Catalyst falls right on page 12?  Some people do and that’s ludicrous.  Its all about your STORY.  I mean, look, here’s the basic three act structure:

pages purpose
Act 1 first 25% Setup
All main characters and their surrounding situation should be introduced here. What is the hero’s goal – externally and internally? Who are the supporting characters.The first act ends with plot point 1 – an incident that turns the plot in a new direction.
Act 2 next 50% Conflict
The protagonist fights for his goal encountering one obstacle after the other. It ends with plot point 2 which puts him into a situation where it is almost impossible to succeed.Because the second act is very long, Syd Field suggests three orientation points for the writer. One is the midpoint – it’s in the middle of the movie. You knew that, right? Often this is the point where the hero and his enemy clash directly for the first time. Kind of a point of no return, the last chance for reconciliation has passed.It’s not easy to fill 30 pages with meaningful action that drives the plot towards its goal. So Field introduced two more orientation points: pinch 1 and pinch 2. Pinch 1 occurs half way between plot point 1 and the midpoint. Pinch 2 occurs half way between midpoint and plot point 2.The second act ends with plot point 2 – also called the crisis. Here the hero faces a situation that seems impossible to solve. We certainly don’t want to be in his shoes here, but would really like to know what he does now.
Act 3 final 25% Resolution
At the beginning the hero is in the pits, approaching the crisis. Except in tragedies he wins over all adversities and gets back on top, using everything she learnt and accomplished in act 1 and 2.

Its standard.  Everyone knows it.  Every assistant forced to read scripts all day and all night to present to the boss knows it and that’s the very minimal guidelines for writing a screenplay.  That all said, there are four and five act structures.  There’s Syd Field’s Paradigm.  There’s the Hero’s Journey.

The fact is each one says its the best.  The fact is that there are rabid followers of each of them.  Each of these paradigms have one thing in common: they outline the important points to remember in crafting your story and the pacing your story should try to maintain to entertain your audience.  But the one true fact is: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE STORY.

So break the rules, do what feels good and is comfortable for the story you are telling… but don’t leave something out and don’t make rookie mistakes (which includes following someone else’s outline on how to write your story).

Do screenplay contest winners ever get made?

An anonymous user asked: “What percent of contest winners ever get their scripts made into movies?”

Wow, that’s a hard question to answer as no one tracks all of that in one place, but quite often if you search through the major contest results very few ever get made.  Why?

Well, there are a few reasons.

First: A good portion of screenplays that the studios buy never get produced.  I’ve heard numbers anywhere from only 10% to 25% of all script purchases ever get made.  I’d actually bet the number is even smaller.  Sometimes they purchase a script because they already have something similar in development and want to take it off the market.  Sometimes they have all the good intentions of making the screenplay into a film but it just doesn’t get the momentum that it needs to carry it forward.  Sometimes the stars just don’t align right.  More often than not, the stars don’t align.

A movie is an engine with thousands of moving parts and anyone of them can break down and cause the project to not get off the ground.  Doesn’t mean the script wasn’t good, but…

Second: Let’s look at the market.  In 2012 and 2011 the Scoggins Report reported exactly 132 spec sales.  That’s 132 sales of scripts that were written independently by writers.  So how does that compute to screenplay winners and finalists?  Well with just the Nicholls Fellowship and Page Screenplay winners your talking 50 winners… and that’s just two contests.  Or, to put it another way, there were close to 50,000 screenplays registered last year by the WGA and only 132 sales.

That means only 0.2% of all screenplays written last year were purchased.  Go further, that means 0.05% to 0.02% of all screenplays registered last year will get produced.

Third: In a perfect world only good scripts get made, right?  Hollywood is far from perfect and neither are script contests.  If you follow the spec market and read the spec scripts you’ll scratch your head on some contest winners.  Why did this win? Are you kidding me?  And if you watch a lot of movies you’ll ask the same questions:  Why did this get made?  Are you kidding me?

So why didn’t they get made?  Oh, there are a host of reasons.  Those screenplay competition winners were good, but were they commercial?  Were they ready?  Where they professional?

To use a sports analogy: The best high school football player in a given state is still no match for the Heisman trophy winner in the same year.  And even that Heisman Trophy winner will get squashed if he tried to scrimmage in the NFL right away.

The best amateur isn’t as good as the best professional… at least not usually.

That doesn’t mean give up.  Take the acclaim and use it to your benefit.  Ride the press.  Always move forward!


The Spellbinding Center

At the end of the day, the plan is this: Look at your golden nuggets (ideas). Discover what attracts (hypnotizes, draws you in) you to the idea and write a clear statement of that Spellbinding Center. Brainstorm concepts by combining…

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