Tag Archives: Screenplay consultant

Why We Tell Stories

Ideas bounce around in my head that I know I want to include in my story. For instance, yesterday an employee from a drugstore called me to ask me if I had any prescriptions I wanted to fill. I have had prescriptions filled at this store before, but wouldn’t I know if I needed some prescriptions filled? Wouldn’t I just call them and have them filled without their prod? I posed this logic to the eager employee and she asked me if I knew how to get in touch with them? It all went downhill from there. That’s just one of the many recent experiences that I know I can include in my story.

But, before I start on this journey to chart my way through making a no-budget movie, I ask myself why do I want to tell a story in the first place? And why do I want to do it through the medium of film? Why would I go through the rigors of dreaming up a story, structuring the character and plot and theme, scripting it, asking for money (Yes, a no-budget film costs money to make!), finding a crew, a camera, and all the paraphernalia to do the job? It’s a lot of work, much of it tedious.

The answer is that I live in the realm of stories all the time. Stuff just comes to me. When I was a boy, all the kids in the neighborhood would come to my yard and I would cast them in my fantasies. I didn’t think of myself as a “leader”, but as I look back I see I was definitely the one with all the ideas and all the others would just go along for some reason.

There was one kid who lived across the street that my parents didn’t want me playing with. Pat Dover was a latchkey kid who lived with his divorced mom who worked nights. Pat ran around barefoot in dirty clothes and was a little wild, but he was a great and willing actor in my scenarios. He was Huck Finn to my Tom Sawyer.

I had stories that went on for weeks sometimes. It would take us from our back yard, up trees, across the roof of our garage, down the alley, to the railroad yards where we absolutely were not supposed to be. When I was called for dinner, it didn’t matter how many arrows, knives, and bullet wounds I had, I would tell Pat “to be continued” and run in to eat. He always showed up the next day knowing exactly where we left off.

The interesting thing about these stories is that we would battle each other, two quest seekers always at odds with each other, and wind up realizing we were blood brothers. Even if I was the Indian and he was the sheriff looking to arrest my renegade ass, we would discover our kinship with a matching medalion, or matching birthmarks, or some other device I had dreamed up. We would then team up victoriously against a common enemy. Then, somehow, we would forget that we were brothers and become enemies once again. It was a great couple of summers!

When I was an adolescent, I enlisted my sister and brother to record mock radio shows complete with disk jockey, songs, commercials, and radio dramas. We would use our dad’s reel-to-reel recorder that we were told not to ever touch and threatened within an inch of our lives if we did. But the desire to create was stronger than the fear of punishment. Years later as an adult, my dad, now divorced from my mom, told me he wanted me to hear something and played one of those tapes. He told me it was his most treasured possession and had listened to it hundreds of times.

I don’t know where this urge to create stories comes from, but I do know that the structure of story, as codified by Aristotle, is in everyone’s DNA. Ingrained into us by many thousands of years of story telling around the village fires for teaching purposes, we all instinctively know the elements a story needs to be successful. If we are not story tellers, we are at least story listeners. One of the basic tenets of good story telling is to give the audience what it expects, but not how it expects the outcome. If we don’t do that well, the audience is savvy enough to hit the gong.

I think that it’s important during these turbulent times with cultural, religious, and regional lines being drawn in the proverbial sand that we remember the common bonds of music and story telling. All cultures grow their roots in a mythology that becomes uniquely their own. Yet, as Joseph Campbell shows us in HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, there is a commonality in the multiplicity of mythologies because the human experience is universal as a result of our similar nervous systems. Mythology helps us to understand our experiences and preserve the past.

When I asked my brother what kinds of movies he likes he told me he only watches movies to escape. I asked him is his life was so bad he feels he has to escape. “No,” he said. “It helps me to relax.” Of course, if a story teller can bring an audience to this relaxed state, that is a great time to sneak a little life lesson in under the radar as well.

I think there is a continuum from pure escapism to interpretive story telling. On the pure escapist end of the spectrum, stories are tightly structured with a familiar story-telling template so the audience doesn’t have to think much. They just sit back on the roller coaster and take the ride. On the other end of the spectrum an audience is required to be a part of the story-telling experience. By virtue of experiencing less formal unique structures of character, plot, and thematic information, they reach some greater understanding of the values they bring to the process. As we bring our personal values into balance with conscious understanding, while being entertained, we create the inner fabric to build a more unified outer community. This unified community brings joy to the individual. That, for me, is the purpose of telling stories.

Ideas On Variable Story Perspectives

I’m sitting here at Mick’s Café in Pacific Palisades waiting for a poetry reading by a friend of mine, John FitzGerald, at Village Books down the street. Since I stirred my consciousness about multiple ways to structure a movie story, my mind has been flooded with ideas I want to relate. What better time than the present.

I wish to preface my thoughts with the caution that all of these ideas should be attempted only after becoming supremely adept at single perspective, beginning-middle-end story-telling. Ninety-eight percent of the books on screenwriting talk about basic structure. People who complain about “the formula” are either people who watch only studio-produced movies, or writers who haven’t yet mastered the form.

A word about form. Form creates boundaries. Without boundaries, a story can become unruly, tedious, and without focus. Any art form has certain rules – rules that can be “broken” only by those who understand the rules… with few exceptions. A master, then, doesn’t ignorantly break the rules, but transcends them and creates his/her own form with awareness. A craftsman fills a form over and over until the work begins to dictate an expansion or alteration of those boundaries.

On my website, http://www.raineyscriptconsulting.com/, I expound upon the fundamentals of screenwriting with my unique take on the construction of basic screen-story structure. I explain how theme and plot have a symbiotic relationship through the main character to create a single spine. Consider the spine of the human body. The vertebrae give you an overt structure, like a plot, and the spinal cord connects all parts of the body to each other as well as the psyche, like a theme. The key component of this plot/theme relationship and the controlling factor that drives the story forward and builds the character arc is the escalating succession of emotionally-challenging decisions that the main character makes throughout act two.

Once you have embodied the above practice so that it unfolds for you intuitively, you are ready to play with structural variations. The first variation to attempt is a dual-perspective story, or a story that has two main characters. In order to go there, I think it’s important, first of all to understand the difference between main character and protagonist.

Melanie Anne Phillips, creator of Dramatica: A Theory of Story, is the first that I know of to put forth this separation. Everyone in the Hollywood story factory talks about protagonist as the perspective character of a story. However, that is not necessarily the case in many movies. So, what is the difference?

The word ‘protagonist’ is a Greek word that implies a story function that drives a story. This is an objective element of a story that is represented by a leading character. Any story archetype is a story function – good guy, bad guy, sidekick, mentor, tempter, skeptic, herald, trickster, threshold guardian, shape-shifter, love interest, etc., all are story functions.

A Perspective Character, on the other hand, is a character through whose subjective eye we see the story. In most studio films, the Protagonist function is performed by the Perspective Character. The ‘check list’ that readers use to qualify your script demands that this be the case.

There are many award-winning films, however, where the protagonist does not carry the subjective perspective of the story. For example, review the following movies: TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD, PRIMARY COLORS, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, AMERICAN BEAUTY, THE BIG CHILL, GRAND CANYON, etc.

Then, there are movies that have multiple protagonists, such as TRAFFIC, CRASH, LOVE ACTUALLY, PULP FICTION, NASHVILLE, WELCOME TO LA, SHORT CUTS, SYRIANA, BABEL, etc. In the case of these multiple protagonist movies, the underlying theme of each becomes the ephemeral idea that unites the multiple stories.

In each of theses movies, who drives the story? Then ask, from whose perspective is the story told? As you will see, the character that drives the story is not always the character that carries the story’s point of view. I think that it is important to make this distinction when considering the construction of plot and theme. The Protagonist of your story will drive the plot; the Perspective Character will reveal the theme by virtue of his/her emotional arc and changing values.

Time to go to my poetry reading. More later…

Welcome To My New Blog

I have been writing screenplays for 25 years now. I’ve sold a few, written a bunch on assignment, and optioned many specs. Some have been optioned several times. Everyone who reads my scripts seems to love my writing, but getting a script to the screen is the miracle. The toughest part of making a movie is raising the initial money to get it into production, especially if you want to make it through all the industry channels. These days that process has become highly improbable for many.

That is why indie filmmaking has become so popular. There are schools and books on guerilla filmmaking and literally thousands of festivals to exhibit a film once it’s made. I’m currently working on a super-low-budget indie film (someone else’s) for the education. It’s like going to school. Because unions and permits are circumvented and the money is scarce, I’m able to jump in and do everything from PA work to craft services to continuity supervising. I now know why people specialize in crew work. For a film production to go smoothly, everyone must know what s/he is doing. Amateurs get in the way. The crew has a unique name for every little thing and you gotta know the lingo… especially if you work on the genie (grip and electric) crew.

However, this will not stop me from going in the direction of writing more indie-type scripts. After being at this craft for over 25 years, I realize that I want more control over my own product. I want to direct what I write. I have already written 7 spec indie scripts and I’m learning with each one how to take production costs into account during the writing. Now, I want to write one that costs virtually nothing to make (that means under $50,000). How will I do that? I will write a script where the story takes place completely within my own living space (all interiors, meaning I can control weather and light) with a minimum of characters – 3 max.

While this blog will be a place where I can share my musings with you on the elements of writing scripts, I will also track my progress on this quest to get a movie made under my complete control… he said with the naiveté of a novice. I hope to encourage and guide you to and through your own film production as I share my experiences and mistakes with you.

In the meantime, I continue to consult with writers on their scripts. There is a wealth of information on line and in books on screenwriting. Most of this information deals with screenwriting 101, i.e. writing a beginning-middle-end story with a single main character who is also the protagonist of the story. There are many other forms and formats of story-telling, but screenwriting 101 must be mastered before any other form is tackled. Screenwriting 101 is the fundamental structure of any good story. The more advanced forms of story-telling are a variation on this theme. I’ll write more about these advanced forms in later posts.

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