The Note Behind The Note: Insights From An Industry Reader
The other night I had the good fortune of taking on the role of fly on the wall as one of my absolute favorite industry readers Rob Ripley (www.http://thirdactscreenplays.squarespace.com/) got together with a group of talented screenwriters to talk material from a reader’s point of view. For those of you not familiar with Rob, let me introduce you. Not only has the guy been reading in the industry for years and years, he was also the story coordinator for Cruise/Wagner, read professionally for Paramount and Disney (to name a few) and is currently reading for a major network. Throughout the discussion that took place on this particular evening, I was reminded why I’ve always liked Rob so much: Not only is he a genuinely nice guy with a stellar story sense, he is also incredibly generous with both his knowledge and his time. So generous, in fact, that he allowed me to share his insights with anyone who cares to look at this blog.
Below is a breakdown of the most impactful insights that emerged from the conversation I just mentioned.
Logic is KING
Your story, and your characters’ actions, must be driven by LOGIC. Rob calls this Logic Mapping, which frankly I think is pure gold (and a goldmine if ever he chose to put it in a book). The idea behind logic mapping is simple: Every event or action has a logical next step, which can easily be broken down like this: IF Walt is dying of cancer, THEN he wants to make sure that he is not leaving his family in poverty, THEREFORE he applies his knowledge of chemistry to cook meth and make extra money for his family before he passes. IF. THEN. THEREFORE. Or IF Chef Casper is made to cook the same tired, dated menu over and over to please his restaurant owner and his customers THEN he is going to get called out on it. THEREFORE, he will quit his job and pursue a food truck in which he can once again cook food that he can be proud of. Of course, IF/THEN/THEREFORE logic mapping doesn’t just relate to a logline or simple premise; it informs the decisions and actions of goal-driven characters within a particular piece. For example:
IF Pat gets out of the mental institution and wants to get his wife back, THEN he is going to have to prove to her that he is a better man. THEREFORE…
Pat sets out to lose weight and better himself by staying active and reading the material from Nicky’s syllabus, but THEN he once again loses his temper and suffers a set back THEREFORE
Pat agrees to start taking medication and is invited to Nicky’s best friends house, where he meets Tiffany, THEREFORE
Pat befriends Tiffany, asking her to pass a clandestine letter to Nicky, THEREFORE
Pat agrees to become Tiffany’s dance partner in order to compel her to pass the letter to Nicky, THEREFORE… (and on and on and on)
You get the idea.
It seems so, so, so simple, but so often I come across scripts that simply don’t deploy logic in character behavior, action or choice. The president finds out that the world is about to be destroyed, and then he goes to a cocktail party. A woman is raped and then hangs out with her friends as though nothing happened. Logic is what earns you the trust of the audience – while they shouldn’t know exactly where you’re going, logic establishes the trust that is going to get you there, and brings the audience along.
A note is just a suggestion
While notes give you are a general direction, they are, in the end, just suggestions, and no one knows whether or not a note will be successful until it is implemented. After all, screenwriting is not in the idea, it’s in the execution. Every note will have endless ripple effects, and only once those ripple effects settle will you be able to determine whether a note was successful. While it is frustrating to receive a specific note on one draft and then an entirely contrary note on the next, the reality is that your script is a bit of a puzzle to everyone involved, and we’re just trying on different pieces to see what ultimately fits. So be patient with notes so that you’re not “noted to death.” Consider each note a suggestion, and discard those that you ultimately feel don’t make sense for improving the work.
Everyone is attractive
If your movie is going to be made in Hollywood and for Hollywood, assume that everyone will be good looking. So, unless a characters looks are specifically needed in order for the concept to exist or for the plot to happen or move ahead, there’s no need to describe your characters as “attractive,” “pretty” or “handsome.”
Page count matters & white space is your friend
A script’s first impression usually comes from the page count and the white space. If a visual first check reveals the page count is unnaturally high and/or the pages are over-loaded, the script will likely languish at the bottom of the reading pile. The general belief is that a professional, skilled screenwriter should be able tell a full cinematic story in 100 pages, that an original 1-hour television pilot should run no less than 56 pages, and no more than 65, while economy of words should be used each and every time while driving forward the action. Sure, a development process can change up the page count and the rules are suspended (or stretched) for established writers, but for an emerging writer, don’t sacrifice economical page count and white space as a way to stand out.
Character, character, CHARACTER
You’ve heard it a million times before, but it’s worth saying again: If you don’t have a strong, flawed, complex character, it’s possible that you don’t have anything. If the story engine is what’s driving you through your feature script or original television pilot, character is who and what drives that engine towards the creation of a compelling and meaningful journey. A compelling character has to be both exceptional and flawed, carrying equal parts of drive and wound. There are many ways to look at such elements. Here are just a few:
- A movie/television show is the story of ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances
- A character’s internal journey is one of going from living in fear (adhering to wound) to living courageously (resolving or recovering from wound)
- A character wound is the event or scar from the past that affects your character in the present and prohibits him from living to his fullest.
No matter how you define it, remember that even the most seemingly shallow, popcorn, purely entertaining movies deployed effective character journeys. Whether we’re talking about Will Smith in “Independence” Day or Ed Helms in “The Hangover,” these character exhibited a real, tangible internal journey that allowed their characters to arrive resolved at the end of the 3rd act. You don’t need to look as far as Bradley Cooper in Silver Lining Playbook or the great Walter White to figure out what we’re talking about.
While many other topics were discussed on that very special night (a sincere thank you to the writers who allowed me to join them!), these are the specific points that stood out. To me, screenwriting is a craft that needs to be consistently reexamined and reevaluated by those practicing it, so whenever I find bits of information that provide new illumination or more things to consider when you write, I am happy to be able to share it with everyone.
If you want to learn more about Rob Ripley, you can do so at his site: www.http://thirdactscreenplays.squarespace.com/