2017 Screenwriting Tip Of The Day by William C. Martell - Focused story hspace="10"

MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?


Shall we begin with a focused story?

The first step in focusing your script is to know what your screenplay is about. This seems simple enough, but many times when I ask a writer to tell me about their script, they answer with a disjointed, rambling monologue which leaves me more confused than enlightened. Each piece is well described, but I'm not sure how they all fit together into a single story.

Try this: Tell a friend what your script is about using no more than three brief sentences. (Remember, TV Guide will only use one brief sentence when your film hits cable.) Can you relate the entire idea of the script to them? Will they understand who the lead character is, and what their goals and conflicts will be?

If you have trouble telling a friend what your story is about, imagine how much trouble a development exec who has given your script a quick read over the weekend will have telling your story to the producer with the keys to the checkbook.

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I defy either William Goldman or Larry Kasdan to tell me the story of DREAMCATCHER using only a handful of sentences. The movie is a mess - maybe a dozen different stories fighting for our attention and screen time. Though DREAMCATCHER is based on a massive novel by Stephen King, written while recovering from being hit by a truck while walking down the street (so the book may qualify as a drug-related incident), it's still the job of those adapting the novel to figure out what the story is and focus on that. This may require throwing away 750 pages of that 880 page novel - but that's what adaptation is all about. You have to shape and focus that material. The film seems to keep every subplot and tangent in the novel's 880 pages and can't seem to make them add up to anything.

DREAMCATCHER is the story of...

1) Four friends with psychic abilities struggling to get through day-to-day life. There's Psychiatrist Henry Devlin (Thomas Jane) who already knows what troubles his patients - but can't tell them without setting them off. When he tells a chronic over-eater that his problems stem from guilt over the death of his mother, the patient goes off the deep end and kills himself. Then there's Jonsey (Damian Lewis) a college professor who believes every sob-story his students *think* - and graduates them. There's car dealer Pete (Tim Olyphant) who uses his psychic gifts to meet women... but after a moment of amazement they begin to think he's a freak and end up rejecting him. And rounding out the foursome of friends is Beaver (Jason Lee) who seems trapped in a dead-end life due to his "gift". Their gift has them on the brink of suicide every day, but each one helps the other get through life. Same shit, different day. After Jonsey is hit by a car while crossing the street and almost dies, the four decide to take a vacation together in a remote hunting lodge. Sort of a psychic BIG CHILL where they come together to help Jonsey get back on his feet.

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2) Black Ops Colonel Kurtz (Morgan Freeman - in his first ever bad performance on film) has been hunting aliens for 25 years and seems to be losing his mind. His second in command, Captain Underhill (Tom Sizemore), disagrees with his methods of disciplining soldiers who make mistakes - Kurtz shoots them. When a small New England town has an outbreak of "Ripley" - a red fungus from outer space - Kurtz and Underhill round up everyone in town and put them in a concentration camp. The "Ripley" fungus means aliens are present - and Kurtz's plan is to kill all of the townspeople in case one of them has an alien "hitch-hiker" living inside of them. Underhill tries to talk him out of it, without alienating his mentor. Let's call this story "The Fungus Among Us".

3) Two hunters discover a lost hiker in the woods named Richie (Alex Campbell) and take him back to their cabin. Because of a fierce storm, the phone lines are out, so they can't call for medical help. No sooner does Richie get warm inside the cabin than he begins unleashing farts-from-hell. So smelly that the hunters would rather step outside into the blizzard than continue smelling them. When they go back inside, Richie has left the bedroom where he was resting and gone into the bathroom... leaving a trail of blood behind him! When the hunters enter the bathroom, Richie is on the toilet - seemingly dead... until he lets lose with a massive poop that rivals the one in DUMB & DUMBER. But it's not a poop - it's a monster from Richie's butt! The hunters trap the monster in the toilet - but flushing does no good. Eventually the butt-monster escapes and the two hunters are trapped in the cabin with the thing from another world and must fight it to survive. This monster not only comes out of people's butts, it looks like a penis... but has a mouth that looks like a vagina with teeth. Let's call this story "Creatures From Uranus". Paging Dr. Freud! Paging Dr. Freud!

4) Four grade school kids rescue a mentally retarded boy from a gang of older bullies and become his best friend. The retarded boy (Duddits) has psychic powers, and the five kids begin having after-school Scooby-Doo adventures where they solve mysteries and find lost school kids using Duddits' special psychic gifts.

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5) An intelligent college professor is possessed by an alien named "Gray" who wants to use his body to get him to Boston... where he will unleash these sperm things into a reservoir and impregnate the entire city with aliens. It's the beginning of an alien invasion of the world! The college professor (okay, it's Jonesy) must battle the alien inside his mind - preventing him from finding critical information he has stored up there. Though this story is part DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE - with Jonsey's battle taking place in the real world where it can be seen through mannerisms, the other part takes place in an elaborate warehouse inside Jonsey's mind - where he must race from one section of his brain to another with a mover's dolly stacked with files of secret information. Will he be able to battle the creature living in his brain, hide critical information, and figure out a way to stop the evil "Gray" (who speaks with a British accent, even though he's from outer space) before he unleashes his sperms on an unsuspecting Boston? Let's call this story "Professor Jonsey and Mr. Gray".

6) An alien space ship has crashed in the North-East, and the military has been called in to check it out... they discover a bunch of survivors signaling for help. But Col. Kurtz is in charge of this operation, so he decides to fire up Ride Of The Valkyres on the Apache's CD player and attack the aliens. This leads to a battle between Aliens and the Army... so let's call this story "War Of The Worlds".

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There are plenty of other stories in DREAMCATCHER, but I don't have time to write about all of them. The problem with the film is that there are so many different stories - each with a different central conflict, each with a different protagonist, each with a different antagonist... It becomes really silly when we get to the end, and they try to pull all of these stories together. In one scene two characters get into a machine gun battle for no apparent reason! Well, it does kill off two characters from two of the stories that really have no further purpose... but both characters had the same goal at this point in the film, so there was no reason why they should fight each other! It's just silly! Another story line I've left out is about the adult Duddits - now dying of leukemia - who ends up holding the key to stopping the alien invasion... and part of that story includes aliens from another planet who are friendly to Earthlings and send a warrior in to kill "Mr. Gray" when he escapes from Jonsey and unleashes his sperms into the drinking supply. Oh, and I forgot fouth friend Pete's story about his struggle with sobriety after he and Dr. Devlin get into a car wreck in the wilderness after almost hitting a woman sitting in the middle of the road... who has an alien in *her* butt, too! Oh, and there's Dr. Henry who gets swept up into the concentration camp and tries to bargain information for his life. Trying to get all of these stories to connect at the end creates some of the crazies and lamest scenes ever put on film. These stories are at war with themselves - and the audience loses!

Oh, and you may have noticed I didn't explain what the Dreamcatcher has to do with any of these stories... that's because I don't really know. There's one in the cabin that ends up covered with fungus... maybe there was a whole Dreamcatcher story in the novel that got trimmed out of movie?

Here are the things you need to know before you can even outline your screenplay:
1) Who is your protagonist?
2) What do the want?
3) What keeps them from getting it?
4) What are the consequences for failure?

#3 is the tricky one! There must be no easy way around #3!

Now, you want to test your story?
1) Who is your antagonist?
2) What do the want?
3) What keeps them from getting it?

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#3 should be your protagonist. If it's not, you'll probably end up with problems in Act 2. That's the "conflict act" and if your antagonist and protagonist don't naturally engage in conflict your script is D.O.A. Act 2 is the protagonist and antagonist SMASHING into each other because they are in each other's way - no way around. If they AREN'T in each other's way no amount of forcing will work - it will always look contrived and fake. Your protagonist and antagonist have to be on the same track (and headed right at each other) in order to grow conflict... and conflict is what your story is all about. The conflict is the story! MOBY DICK is the conflict. In THE MUMMY RETURNS that Mummy is the source of the conflict. In JAWS it's the shark. If you were telling your friend the story of JAWS you have to mention the shark... in fact, your three sentence version is going to focus on the shark and Chief Brody - the protagonist and antagonist locked in conflict!

What's your script about? If it's not clear to you, it won't be clear on the page. I don't think it was ever clear to Goldman or Kasdan (or even King) what DREAMCATCHER was about... and the film suffers because of that.

This sort of problem is covered in the STORY Blue Book.


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