MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
It's one of those notes you hear frequently - your script is "episodic". But, what exactly does that mean? What makes a script episodic, why is it a bad thing, and is there a cream or ointment that you can apply to cure it?
Imagine the beginning of your story is a point on one end of a field, and the end is a point on the other end of that field. We put a 20 foot tall pole at each point to mark them. And between those two pole we string our "story line". We don't want a saggy, flabby, storyline - so we make sure it's tight. One reason for that is that our storyline is going to have to support a whole bunch of scenes and sequences and incidents. Just having some line between a couple of poles isn't as cool as having tight rope walkers beautifully balanced on that line. We want our scenes and sequences to be light, graceful and elegant - to *compliment* that storyline. To be part of that storyline.
But sometimes you may think that having a graceful tightrope walker sequence is fine, but wouldn't a bigger, stronger, more interesting sequence be better? Instead of that little graceful guy, imagine a powerful King! Or maybe a huge Warrior! So we put our fat and powerful King or our huge musclebound Warrior on the line... and the danged thing snaps under their weight! We're gonna need a stronger storyline!
Episodic problems always end up being some conflict between scenes (or sequences) and storyline (also called a "throughline"). Either the storyline isn't strong enough, or the focus is on the scenes and sequences instead of the story, or there is no storyline. Instead of *one* storyline that stretches from beginning to end, we have a bunch of fat Kings and musclebound Warriors laying on the field between the two pole with nothing really connecting them. That is what episodic means - a bunch of scenes or sequences with little or nothing connecting them. Usually the only thing that connects them is that all of the scenes revolve around the same character... but sometimes even that connection is missing.
You may not remember this, but before Jack Black dropped off the face of the earth after making GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, there was a certain amount of hype surrounding his caveman comedy film YEAR ONE - it was Harold Ramis' return to cinema. The man who gave us CADDYSHACK and GROUNDHOG DAY was making another movie, and it starred two new big comedy stars, Jack Black and Michael Cera. Hey, this was gonna be great! Only it wasn't great at all... and the film flopped. Why? Well, it was episodic.
YEAR ONE was just a bunch of semi-funny little skits with our two cave-guys wandering from Old Testament skit to skit. Adam & Eve. Cain & Able. Sodom & Gomorrah. All of the famous comedy teams. Some of the skits were pretty good, others would have been rejects for Saturday Night Live. As with any skit comedy, even the great KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, not every skit is going to work. You hope the great skits earn you enough laughs that the audience forgives the misfires. But here's the big problem - YEAR ONE is not a skit comedy like GROOVE TUBE or KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE or Mr. MIKE'S MONDO VIDEO... it's a single story! It just seems like two guys going from one skit to another because there is no clear storyline. There is no *reason* for them to go to the next skit, it's just the next town they stumble in to. These two dopey cavemen wander into some village where a skit takes place and then wander into the next village.
What YEAR ONE needed was a "throughline" - an over-all plot that links all of these scenes together and creates some *drive* from one scene to the next. The film is kind of a parody of Roland Emmerich's 10,000 BC... the "quest" the two guys are on is to find this woman that Cera has a crush on, and they are wandering from town to town searching for her. Except, they never really do any real searching. Once they get to a new town, there's a skit... and she isn't visible in the town... so when the skit is over they move on to the next town.
In 10,000 BC the lead's girl is kidnapped and he goes from scene to scene chasing the people who have taken her in order to get her back... the storyline is all about rescuing the woman he loves, and every new village he goes to he either battles the kidnappers or finds a clue to where the kidnappers have taken her. It's all about that kidnapped girl, even if the scene in this village is about finding some warriors to help him rescue her.
In YEAR ONE, the two are banished from their village, and at the end of the movie discover their women have been captured and decide to rescue them.
Difference is, 10,000 BC is always about rescuing the girl, even if the scene is kind of a story side-trip. YEAR ONE it isn't about anything - it is all side trips... and seems to take forever to get anywhere. It's just wandering without purpose. There are scenes, but the storyline linking them together is weak to the point of non-existent.
UNITY OF EVENT
About two and a half thousand years ago this dude Aristotle came up with these ideas of what makes a dramatic piece work. One of the elements was The Three Unities: Time, Place, Action/Event. In movies, these things are more plyable than on stage (there were very few movies in Aristotle's time), but the basic ideas are still true.
If you have a movie that takes place in too many different locations it can become confusing... and the location shifts can take away from the story. That's the one that we can most play with in cinema, and it still holds true.
If you have a movie that jumps all over the place in time, it can be difficult to follow the story, and too many different time periods can be confusing. Again, movies have flashbacks which bend this rule... but it still holds true.
When we get to Action/Event, I think we get to the one that still holds true in cinema. Movies tend to tell one story, and the more different stories you cram into there, the more confusing it becomes. It can easily seem like there is no story - just a bunch of subplots woven together. That single unified line of action is missing. That is the problem with YEAR ONE. Where 10,000 BC is all about rescuing the woman he loves, YEAR ONE uses finding the girl as little more than an excuse to connect skits. The Unity Of Action/Event means that your story must be more important than all of the scenes that make up that story, and the main story must be *driving* each of those scenes. Scenes that are not part of the main story make it episodic.
All they had to do in YEAR ONE is make this a quest to rescue the women from the start, and all of the side trips have purpose... they are places on the road to rescuing the women. Then each scene needs to focus on that purpose - rescuing the women. We can still get the funny skit, but the skit must be part of the over-all story and required to tell that over-all story. Our tight-rope walkers have to be on the rope - not levitating somewhere off that storyline. Without the over-all story, the scenes in YEAR ONE seem pointless, and when one isn't funny, it's...
1) Not funny
2) Not required to tell the story
3) A waste of time
4) A real pisser if you're sitting in the audience!
Unity of Action/Event means that we will have ONE story per screenplay, and ONE major conflict per screenplay. The subplots will all be part of the main plot - like rungs in the ladder leading to the resolution of the conflict. The sub-conflicts will all be part of the main conflict - not some crazy pasted on problem but an aspect of that main conflict that must be resolved to take us to the next step. Each scene or sequence is not telling its own story, it is part of the larger story and must be a "step" on that storyline from the "starting post" to the "ending post". One scene leads to the next scene... and all of the scenes are leading to the end.
Any scene that does not move the story forward? Any scene that is "heavier" than the storyline? Any scene that is not part of the storyline? Any script that is a collection of incidents from a character's life without *one* conflict that connects them all? That's what makes your script "episodic" and probably rejected all over town... and if they do make it into a movie like YEAR ONE? Well, most people will not remember it, even a year after it came out!
THE FINE PRINT
Someone will now mention a couple of films that completely violate the Unity of Action/Event... the exceptions to the rule. One of the things I always say is that there are no real rules in screenwriting, only tools to use to make your scripts work better. But some tools are more important than others, and those basics of drama that Aristotle noted 2,400 years ago have been around for a long time and seem to be the things that have worked for 2,400 years. That's longer than Christianity! So, be careful when you mess with these things. Sure, there are some exceptions, but very few of them.
Here's the big question: What do you plan to do with the script? Because experiments are fine, and experimental films you make yourself are fine. It only becomes an issue when you intend on selling the script (or finding someone else to foot the bill for your film). Because an experiment is, well, an experiment - and most of them fail. Not a problem if you are just writing the script, but a big problem if you are trying to find someone to pay you money for it. Even if the script works, they may worry that a film will not. There is a difference between *your* investment of time and $2.99 worth of paper and *their* investment of lots of folk's time and $106 million. If your experiment fails, you aren't out much... if they make a film of your experiment and it fails, they've lost over $100 million... and someone will probably get fired over that. Usually the person who thought filming your experiment was a good idea.
I may seem like I'm Mr. Commercial Screenwriter, but mostly I'm just trying to aim people's efforts at the place where they can find someone to buy their script or hire them to write an assignment (which tend to be commercial in nature). When it comes to making money, you have to write the kind of thing that makes money for producers. That's what they are looking for - the "sure thing" or at least something with possibilities. Now, you may actually find some producer who really wants to make the same long shot as you have written - but that is a long shot for you. The more your script resembles scripts that made a lot of money, the more a producer will be interested (because they want to make a lot of money). That means the easier it will be for you to sell a script like that or get someone to read it and want to hire you for an assignment... which means money for you and maybe a film with your name on it.
If you *have to* write the strange script, you *have to* write it. Just don't expect to sell it. Hey, it may be a great sample script... that gets you a job writing a mainstream movie. The thing I often see on message boards is people who *only* want to write strange scripts, and that leads to a big stack of strange scripts that nobody wants to read. Maybe not even your mom. So I always push towards what is most likely to get your script read and maybe sold and maybe a film with your name on it. Not because I am Mr. Commercial, more that I am Mr. I Want To See You Succeed.
Mutiple Oscar Winning Screenwriter Billy Wilder said, "Develop a clean line of action for your leading character." That is that line that we have strung between the pole that begins our story and the pole that ends our story.
Your Screenplay Checklist:
1) What is your protagonist's goal in the story? What is the (physical) conflict they are struggling to resolve?
2) What is the starting point of your story? The ending point of your story?
3) Now you have your "throughline" - how is each scene a point on that "throughline"?
4) Sometimes you have to refocus a scene to bring it back onto the "throughline" - do that!
5) Anything not on the "throughline" is not part of the story!
One way to succeed is to make sure your script is *not* episodic, that it has *one* main conflict and a strong storyline and none of the scenes or sequences are separate stories with separate conflicts that don't move the over-all story forward.
One story = One conflict... don't make the mistake of YEAR ONE!
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