Thursday, April 24, 2008

Juicy Scenes & Pacing

More Answers to past questions. These three were related, so I'm answering them all in the same entry...

QUESTION: Any, er tricks, to build up suspense? Is there a rule of thumb to balance the frequency of the comic relief of the approach of an ominous shadow that turns out to be a kitty with the slightly less frequent surprise slice that reduces the band of kids by one nasty jock in that uniquely gruesome method and, oh by the way, is there anyplace in a screenplay for run on sentences as I seem to have a problem with that too.

ANSWER: I hate those people who say “for the answer to that question, read my book!” There are these guys who teach classes at Expo who are basically there just to pimp their classes or books... But there are two huge chapters in the (still out of print) action book, and one entire CD of the thriller set is all about suspense... way too much information for a quick answer here.

Suspense is the anticipation of an action - so we need to know what the action is, then use one of many techniques to stretch out the anticipation of that event... without allowing the audience to forget the event.

Horror also uses dread (covered on the horror CD) which is the anticipation of an unspecific event. We know that there is a killer outside, but don’t know which door or window they will attack through... and now you stretch out the anticipation without allowing the audience to forget the killer or monster or ghost or whatever.

This is done on the page - a suspense script needs the suspense to work for the reader, a horror script needs the fear to work for the reader. We are trying to use our writing to create the emotions. Not *tell* people what the emotions are, but write a scene or sequence that is filled with those emotions.

Some suspense and dread is situational - we create the situation. Other times we use writing techniques to build the suspense or dread. Often we use both.

As for run on sentences - um, maybe in dialogue if that fits the character? Otherwise, you need to edit. Run on sentences usually make it look like you don’t really know where you are going... they look weak. You want to look strong.

QUESTION: How to increase the tension and how to adjust the pacing properly?

ANSWER: I have a script tip on pacing - it’s the heartbeat of your screenplay. You want to have a regular heartbeat - usually a “juice scene” within every ten pages or so... and more frequently in act 3.

The number of heart beats in your script is critical to your story's survival. It's impossible to have a regular heart beat in your story if you only have four heart beats in 110 pages. That heart is beating so slow the patient is either comatose or dead. The main reason why scripts re slow paced is that not enough exciting stuff is happening. You're going to need about one exciting scene about every ten pages - really funny scenes in a comedy, suspense scenes in a thriller, big dramatic scenes in a drama, action scenes in an action flick. Whatever the “juice” of that particular genre is.

Your heart rests between beats, which is why films that are all exciting scenes with nothing in between seem to burn out. Too much of a good thing. A script needs balance. Peaks and valleys. If your script is always exciting, we'll become used to the excitement and it will become expected... and boring. When car chases and shoot outs become boring, you're in real trouble!

All heart beat is as much a problem as no heart beat at all. But here’s what I learned from watching *Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein* - one genre’s valley is another genre’s peak. By combining two genres - horror and comedy - *Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein* is twice as exciting with no heart beat burn out. The valleys in horror are peaks in comedy. When you aren’t screaming, you’re laughing. The comedy makes the horror twice as scary, and the horror makes the comedy twice as funny. So don’t think of your valleys as “dull parts” or “slow spots”, think of them as exciting parts in another genre. Your thriller may use the valleys as peaks in the dramatic story. Your comedy valleys may be romantic peaks. Every page of your script should be exciting... you don’t to give the audience any time to race to the bathroom. Bust those bladders!

QUESTION: How to get the most 'juice' out of the scenes as you're fond of say?

ANSWER: First, know what juice you want. The juice is the emotions in the scene - and the emotions you want the audience to feel. The scene is going to transfer the emotions to the audience... and we’re going to start with the person the reads our script. We want them to feel something, not just read the script like it’s a work assignment or a report.

Second, we want to create the situation that best produces those emotions. In FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL the lead character, Pete, has broken up with his long time love Sarah. He decides to go away, to a Hawaii resort, to ret and forget her... except that’s where she and her new boyfriend are staying. The other thing about Sarah is that she’s the star of a hot TV show, so Pete can’t turn on TV without seeing her - he can’t escape her!

This is a “cringe comedy” where the humor comes from embarrassing and awkward situations.

So we have a scene in Hawaii where we’re going to milk humor *and* emotions from Pete feeling lonely. He goes to a restaurant at the resort alone, and the host ask “Table for two?” When Pete says no, the host continues - No wife? No girlfriend? No business associates? No buddies? This milks the situation for the most juice... and it keeps going! The host asks if he’d like a magazine or newspaper, because just sitting alone is going to be boring. Once he sits alone at his table, a big deal is made of taking away the other place setting.

Now he’s alone at a table... but not in any restaurant, this is Hawaii. So Pete is surrounded by couples on honeymoon who are all over each other, and guys who have brought their girlfriends so that they can pop the question - and lonely Pete is surrounded by newlyweds and happy couples getting engaged. This also milks the situation to create more humor - each one of these things increases the juice or a juicy situation.

Then, to top it off, Sarah and her new boyfriend enter the restaurant and are seated at the table that Pete’s table overlooks - so he has to watch them while he eats. So we begin with a situation designed to create the kind of cringe comedy that is the juice for this film, then - to keep it juicy - small things within the scene *keep happening* - and escalating until we reach the breaking point.

Okay, that’s a cringe comedy example - but imagine the scene has our lead characters stuck in a house surrounded by zombies, or chased by a serial killer through an abandoned slaughterhouse, or the hero trying to escape the police by walking along a narrow ledge. Those are the basic situations, then we need to find a bunch of things to keep it juicy - things within that scene to keep the situation escalating.

And these things need to be on the page - we need to write them in such a way that the reader *feels* the emotions while they read it. Our job is to use words to create emotions in the reader... and eventually the audience.

- Bill

See You At Fango! - I'll be at the Fangoria Weekend Of Horrors at the LA Convention Center this weekend, if you see me walking down the halls, say hello!

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Two Wrongs - Dilemmas
Yesterday’s Dinner: Pork fried rice at City Wok in Studio City.

Movies: STREET KINGS - People often see a movie and wonder how the hell *that* script got made instead of their brilliant screenplay? Now, most of the time the answer is that the script may have begun life even more brilliant than your screenplay, but went through the giant meat grinder of development and came out as crap. But what about a script with a non-high concept idea? Why buy a script with a bland idea in the first place? Well, the reason is usually the source material - it’s based on a hot novel or stage play or article or maybe it was written by some famous writer that the studios want to keep happy by making their dream script... even though it’s a box office nightmare.

Let me start out by saying that I am a fan of James Ellroy, I’ve read most of his books and have a stack of autographed books - which required that I stand in line at some book store for hours. But Ellroy is an acquired taste - his stories are convoluted, scatter-shot, unfocused, dense, all-over-the-place, and frequently seem like he’s making them up as he goes along. Having met the guy and had a few brief conversations with him when he was signing books, he seems as if he may have ADD or something - he’s got a ton of energy, he’s smart as hell, and he just kind of erupts like a volcano. His books are kind of the same - and every time someone tries to adapt one for the screen, they usually fail miserably. The exception being LA CONFIDENTIAL, which STREET KINGS’ story liberally steals from. Ellroy is one of those writers that you love, warts and all. And Ellroy fans are *rabid* fans - we’re kind of a cult. So when James Ellroy writes his first original screenplay, someone is going to buy it and make it, even if the story doesn’t make much sense. And every star in Hollywood who is a fan of Ellroy’s will be standing in line to play a part.

So STREET KINGS (which was originally called THE WATCHMEN) has an all star cast, headed up be Keanu Reeves as a cop very similar to Russell Crowe’s character in LA CONFIDENTIAL with Forest Whitaker as his boss, similar to James Cromwell. Oh, and Chris Evans is kind of like Guy Pearce. Anyway - Keanu is a cop who knows how to plant evidence against bad guys who are smart enough not to leave any evidence, and isn’t above killing a whole bunch of bad guys who *would have* killed him, had they been armed. It’s a good role for Keanu, because he can seem vacuous and it works - he’s like a big dumb attack dog... but he uses those puppy dog eyes of his to show that he may not be completely at ease with killing people, even if they do deserve it. Add to that the minis of vodka he chugs every few minutes and that dead wife in his past and you have a cliche cop on the edge. I always joke that Keanu is the luckiest man in Hollywood - he stars in all kinds of hit films and even some great ones like RIVER’S EDGE and MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO... but he’s really just like any other star - he has a type of character that he plays really well, and crashes and burns in roles that aren’t in his comfort zone. So he does a great job here - as do all of the others - including Jay Mohr as the straight-arrow cop who keeps confronting Keanu.

Story has Keanu’s ex-partner, whom he hates, murdered moments before Keanu was going to beat him up. Keanu is left at the crime scene with the guy he has publically said he wants to kill... dead. When evidence pops up that his ex-partner might have been dirty, Keanu is told by his boss, Whitaker, to just let it go. But Internal Affairs guy Hugh Laurie thinks Keanu might have killed his partner, so to clear his name he has to find the killer... which exposes all kinds of police corruption and all kinds of twisted plots and all kinds of side tracks and subplots and story threads that seem almost random, and eventually gets us to the real killer... and if you’ve seen LA CONFIDENTIAL, you know who that is.

Problem is, with so much going on there isn’t much time for anything - and we get sketches and cliches as far as characters are concerned. And we’re never really let inside Keanu’s character - we are kept at a distance. The story is pretty much third person - observing the characters instead of allowing us to understand them. The film ends up being cold and emotional... and has no *moments* - even the big end scene where Keanu finally catches up with the guy who killed his partner... and it’s just kind of flat. No emotions, basically a scene like any other scene. Bland.

One of the things that had me wondering in this film: it’s a movie about corrupt Los Angeles cops - and every cop in the film breaks the law and many murder and steal and do awful things.... and the film was shot in Los Angeles! You know, when they film in Los Angeles, and they close down streets - Los Angeles police provide set security and close the streets. So how tough is it to obtain police help in a film that makes police look like scum bags? This old cop script I’ve been accidentally rewriting since seeing this film is about a few corrupt cops, and originally took place in Any City. USA... but my rewrite takes place in San Francisco... and uses some elements of an actual police corruption case that took place there. As I do the rewrite, I keep wondering how tough it’s going to be to shoot this in San Francisco? I guess I’ll finish the rewrite, sell the script, and find out.

Pages: Met with the director on the script I wrote last month, and have some notes to figure out - most are easy, there are a couple that are production oriented that will require a bit of work. But we're making the same movie - which is great. I also did a few more pages on that cop script rewrite I had no plan on rewriting. I need to get back to the rewrite I'm *supposed to be* working on.

- Bill


Andrew said...

Would like to discuss a documentary we are doing for French TV with you as a possible guest. Could not find your email on this blog. Please contact me.

"Here in Van Nuys"

Anonymous said...

In the style of Elroy. Read blog. Liked. Good tip. Today. Power of three. I'll remember.

Richard McNally said...

Jesus you write a lot! LOL at today's SS re fixing a flat character with a padded bra. Too bad Ellroy's first screenplay was a flop. I read a novella of his in Granta about an accordionist who staged his own kidnapping as a publicity stunt to advance his career, a very funny story. Opening line: "Dig, hepcats." I was hooked right there. Lish puts huge emphasis on the opening sentence. He says it must be something that will cause the reader to say to herself: "I can't go on living without reading this story." Oh, and when you appear in the French TV documentary, don't forget to be holding a glass of wine. And maybe a Berkley-style black beret, what the hell.

Oasis said...

He says it must be something that will cause the reader to say to herself: "I can't go on living without reading this story."

I just read a script, and the writer was just-that-clever. I read that one line..and I knew that I would have to finish reading the entire script...or I would have to kill myself.

Now, I'm determined to write a line much better...or I plan to quit writing.

Laura Reyna said...

"So don’t think of your valleys as “dull parts” or “slow spots”, think of them as exciting parts in another genre. Your thriller may use the valleys as peaks in the dramatic story. Your comedy valleys may be romantic peaks. "

The above tip is SOOOO great. Simple, but great.

I just discovered this revelation not too long ago. I'm writing a Horror, and you can't have 5"killing" sequences in a row, where people get killed one after another after another. Like you say, it gets boring.

There needs to be "story" in there as well as gore.

So in my script, in btwn the gory killing parts where it's in the Horror genre, I have scenes that are in the Crime Thriller genre.

It's a slightly different type of emotional response I'm trying to elicit, but thinking in terms of a different genre helps keep me focused on creating a specific emotional reaction, which helps keep the story interesting.

The purpose of each of those "valley" scenes (or sequences) becomes sharper. It keeps those scenes from being boring with people just sitting around talking.

Good post. Pacing & creating an emotional response are extremely important. I'm constantly thinking about how I can improve these 2 things in my writing.

Anonymous said...

This post re using combined genres to vary the pace could not have been more timely - exactly what I need to kick start my edit in a new direction. Great tip.

Richard McNally said...

Interesting SS today re ancillary dimensions of features. LOL re "taking notes from Hasbro" and the observation that if you can put yourself in the shoes of a villain, you can be a movie producer.

- Rick

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