Thursday, June 20, 2013

How To Read A Manuscript

Having as many novelist friends as filmmaking friends, I often find I’m handing a script to a novelist for notes, or the other way around.  So on my literary writing blog, From The Write Angle, I’ve written a primer on how to read a screenplay.  Here, for my filmmaking friends, I thought I’d offer some advice on beta reading for your budding novelist friends. I hope it helps you, because one day you may help me – and you know... it’s all about me.

The biggest difference between a screenplay and a manuscript is that a screenplay isn’t intended to be a finished product anymore than an orchestra score is meant to be read over the radio.  Manuscripts – aka unpublished novels – are the complete deal.  Sure, you might be reading a rough draft, but that’s the same as watching the first cut of a film, not reading the script. 

What’s the same between the two is all the hard stuff: story, character separation, flow, objectives and obstacles, etc.  As a filmmaker, you should be as well-versed on these issues as a novelist.  This primer is intended to help you with issues that are more important to the novelist than the filmmaker.

So, here we go:

Point of View is important in both disciplines, but the rules are stricter, and harder to adhere to, for the author.  Writer’s can move in and out of character’s thoughts, feelings, etc.  Often, that’s a good thing, but not if the narrator’s point of view is established otherwise.  The most common points of view are:

FIRST PERSON: The narrator is a character in the story.  In these cases, you can help your author friends most by making sure there is a plausible way for the narrator to experience everything that’s in the book.  You’ll find yourself saying, “how did s/he know that?” or “I don’t buy that s/he would be there.”  Also keep on the lookout for characters telling the narrator a bunch of stuff.  Just like a movie, an author must show, not tell.  But the hardest part of first person are other characters’ feelings.  The narrator can’t know for certain how other people feel.  He or she is like the camera in a movie.  They can only tell us what they see or hear.

LIMITED THIRD PERSON: The narrator is not a character in the story, but is tightly glued to one – or sometimes two – characters.  Like first person, every aspect of the story must be experienced by these characters.  Harry Potter is a good example.  Nothing happens in those books that Harry doesn’t do, observe, or hear about.  This is often the point of view of films as well, but movies have a long history of playing fast and loose with the convention.  It’s normal in a movie to introduce story elements away from the view of the hero – which is one reason you’ll hear authors grumble about movies.  That’s cheating!

Omniscient  THIRD PERSON:  In this convention, the narrator knows and sees all.  They can jump in and out of the heads of anyone, so the reader often knows more of what’s happening than the characters.  In a manuscript in this style, it’s easy to lose focus, so make sure you are always aware of where you are and what’s happening.

Together with point of view, is tense.  Films are all written in present tense because the audience/reader sees what’s happening as it happens.  Novels are often written in past tense.  Being a non-novelist beta reader, you won’t be expected to catch subtle differences in tense, but if something feels wrong, look to the verbs.

Speaking of verbs, it’s important for the author to use as many active, action verbs as possible.  If the words just lay on the page, look for boring “to be” verbs.  Chances are you’ll help them flush out passive voice.

Word choices are to novels what edits are to movies.  In film, a scene might lag because the editor isn’t cutting on motion, or has left in too many footsteps.  In a novel, the author might be using too many words to get to the point.  If that’s the case, look for adverbs – you know, the ones that end in “-ly”.   They can almost always be cut.

Echoes and repetitive phrases are the novelist's nightmare.  Echoes are words that get in the writer's fingers and repeat themselves in close proximity.  If you find the same words popping up over and over, point them out.  You'll be thanked for it. 

Repetitive phrases have a lullaby effect, and they tend to hang out around dialogue.  Look out for: "...she said, as she ___________ ,"and "...he said, _________ing his head."  If you find yourself rocking like an old Southern on the porch to the predictable rhythms, then you should make a note of it.

Margin notes help authors as much as screenwrights.  Just a quick word or two about what you're thinking or feeling right at that moment on the page. 

Volumes have been written on what makes a good novel, but since a manuscript is intended to be a finished work, you don't need any special training to say how you feel about the story, characters, flow, etc.  The ultimate question is, does the story move you?  If so, great.  If not – some of these simple notes may help you understand why, and help your friends fix the problems.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Big Lesson of DWF16 and The Off Season

The big lesson I came away with this year was that a cheap DCP file isn't worth it.  If your DCP doesn't come with a full QC, then don't bother - because you can't do it yourself.

I have some posts in mind for the off season, starting this Friday, but nothing specific and definitely not every week.  So, feel free to cruise by and see what's up here - but don't worry if there's nothing new.  It just means I'm working on my own scripts, or novels, or acting, or sleeping.

Have a great summer everyone!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Any Given Sunday

There will be joy in Hollywood tonight.

And where there is joy, there is disappointment. 

But where there are winners, there are only losers in the minds of those who choose to see themselves that way.

I'm talking, of course, about tonight's award ceremony for Dances With Films year 16.  We give awards because a few, special mentions might help the winners promote their work, without hurting those terrific films that do not win. 

So the films that do not win, do not lose. 

This year's films were so diverse that choosing a winner for the Grand Jury was close to impossible.  Every film had a champion.  Each had multiple reasons why it deserved to take home the wire man.  Each elimination ripped a piece of the judges' hearts.

So when the winners are announced tonight, whether your name is called or not, let there be joy in your heart.  Joy for your accomplishments.  Joy for the newfound friends' accomplishments.  Joy for being a Dances With Films alumni of year 16.

Congratulations to all.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

It's In All Of Us

It's in our DNA.  It defines us.  It separates us for the rest of the Animal Kingdom.  No, not our opposable thumbs, or our ability to make tools.  It is our need to share stories.

From cave paintings, to the theatrical Festivals of Dionysus, to the Guttenberg press, to Hollywood and the internet, we as a species have a primal need to share our stories.  Some tell them, some listen, a symbiotic relationship between artist and audience.

It is in our DNA.

This year's filmmakers have the same drive to share their stories as the cave painters of prehistoric France, as Socrates and Euripides.  They have struggled to get words on paper as much as the early authors of the Middle Ages, and have fought as hard as Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, or Stephen Spielberg to bring those words to life on the screen.  Sure, the tools of storytelling have changed over the years, but not the drive.

On Friday, Timothy and Patrick Chapman pit familial DNA against artist DNA in Phin.  In Waking, Skyler Caleb and Ben Shelton question reality, Fate and Destiny in the form of a love story of dreams.  Zak Forsman pumps us full of adrenalin and fulfills our secret desires to be a bad-assed anti-hero when things get Downand Dangerous.  Then for some late night fun, Jeffrey Schoettlin and Robert Taleghany look at just how stupid love can make a man in American Idiots.

Love, sex, and emotional confusion go hand-in-hand, so are often the focus of our need to share stories.  On Saturday, Michael Doneger and Michael David Lynch tackle the pain of life on the rebound as they tells us about This Thing With Sarah.  Tom Glynn explores our relationships with our cars.  In Automotive, the car in question belongs to a man confused by love, and trapped in a life of crime.  Then, what Saturday night would be complete without a midnight movie of blood, screams, and dreams of an eternal life of youth and beauty?  We've told scary stories around campfires for centuries – now we tell them in horror movies.  In Chastity Bites, Lotti Pharriss Knowles takes this genre to a new level – with intelligent, hilarious, dialogue, a flawless cast and tons of fun.

We bring out our Sunday best with two entirely different styles of indie film.  Cement Suitcase will charm you with J. Rick  CastaƱeda's script and Dwayne Bartholomew's performance of life's every day struggles in small town America.  Drew Thomas's Channeling shows us the danger of exploitation of our real-life stories, while filling our need for for fast-action, emotional insight, and sic-fi adventure.

Monday night brings Ryan James Russell's Reach., which dives into two of humanities deepest enigmas, love and death, while Chioke Nassor wonders just what our impact on the world is, and if they'll miss us when we're gone, in How To Follow Strangers.

Tuesday, we get to re-live adolescence through the wonderfully stylized eyes of Dan Lee in MurtRamirez Wants To Kick My Ass.  Later, we jump back into the complex adult world as Sam Hancock, Dan Mayer and Matt McKay – together with a standout performance by Alanna Ubach – delve into the limits of acceptance in Us.
Livia De Paolis and Sarah Nerboso also wonder about this human obsession of sharing ourselves – from groups online, to individuals in our lives – in their modern family  drama, Emoticon ;).  Later, David F. Morgan and Cora Benesh tell the story of a generation lost in over and under achievement in City Baby

It's only paranoia if you're wrong.  Friday, Eddy Salazar, Peter Kenneth Jones and Monty Miranda do what Shakespeare did in The Scottish Tragedy – as The Insomniac explores a life without sleep.  What happens to our minds when we don't dream?  Whatever it is, it isn't pretty.  Joe Eddy then takes a good hard look at family, friends, foes, and immigration laws in Coyote.  Then Jono Oliver wonders exactly what is Home?

On our first Second Friday (kind of like Second Breakfast),  Steve Chong Finds Out That Suicide Is A Bad Idea, as Owen Hornstein III unravels a drama in the isolation of a lake-house.  Odin Ozdil uses the 2008 housing crash to see how world economic forces effect our everyday lives  in California Winter, while J.C. Schroder takes the apocalypse even further in Forever's End.  Midnight is once again turned on its head when Will Prescott's imaginary friends get a job Feeding Mr. Baldwin.

Since Comedia del Arte or the 1500's we've seen love stories about gambling over amorous conquests, but what happens in modern times when The Bet is between grandfather and grandson?  That's the story Annie J. Dahlgren, Christina Eliason and Finola Hughes tell us Saturday afternoon.  Paul Osborne then wonders how far an otherwise moral, upstanding, person will go when things start to unravel around him, just for asking a friend for a not-so-simple Favor.  Tamas Harangi feels the pangs of injustice, and explores the pros and cons of vigilantism in The Advocate, while Bernie Van De Yacht and Brett Donowho wonder exactly what is Salvation?  But who really cares about such weighty issues when there are boobs, booze, and buds at midnight, in Scott Donnelly, Erik Lindsay and Greg Garthe's Last Call?

Sunday afternoon, we look behind the walls of prejudice to find out the truth of matters in the purgatory between freedom and incarceration, via James Brannon and Richard Friedman's Halfway To Hell.  Brian Jun and Jack Sanderson turn us back to the observation of this year's festival, storytelling is in our DNA – when She Loves Me Not looks into a famous author's inability to tell another story, while his assistant can't get the world to listen to her first one.  Then put your dancing shoes on, and fill your glasses for the rock & rollingest good times of Lance Lindahl's Hay Days.  And finally, Blu de Goyler and David Mun plunge us into the oldest story of all time, in the House of Good and Evil.

Like DNA, each of these films – and the shorts and documentaries too numerous to mention here –  are unique, yet they have so much in common.  They are the creation of their mothers and fathers – our filmmakers – and yet, they now take on a life of their own.  A life we hope you will all enjoy.