As mentioned in the previous post, I was unforutnately unable to get to the second day of this workshop since I woke up with a throat that felt shredded by a panther’s claws and a head that felt like it had been hit by a hammer. However, despite this Gordy Hoffman imparted so much wisdom on that first day I have plenty to tell you. So chew on this!
Gurus, Formulas & Storytelling. Gordy started the day by telling us that he didn’t really believe in formulas, because any formula can be made to fit any movie. He mentioned that Michael’s Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell is the only screenwriting book he’s read and also insisted that we all know to tell a story. A child knows what a beginning, middle and end is – we just may not tell that story very well! But craft is a learned skill, we can hone it; we all have the potential to create – so if you’re having a crisis of confidence right now (or at any time) about your ability as a writer, I think that’s well worth remembering. My little girl makes stories up and she’s two; in a couple of years those stories will make sense. If yours doesn’t right now, it will.
Script Reading, Filmmaking and Distribution. Gordy told us that he started the Bluecat Screenwriting Competition when he moved to LA a little over ten years ago and “accidentally” learnt alot about actual screenwriting from reading and judging the contest, especially because problems and issues in scripts are SO consistent. I can relate to that totally – reading scripts has taught me more than the whole three years I studied screenwriting at university, without question. He told us about his films Love Liza and A Coat of Snow and the inspiration behind them; he also mentioned that his desire for realism in casting unknowns for the latter proved “disastrous for distribution”, which I thought was particularly interesting. Story it seems is not pull enough: it’s recognisable faces too as far as distributors are concerned.
Clarity. Gordy talked about the importance of creating mystery, not confusion: often writers are so concerned about the mystery element of their story, yet in doing so the only question they get the reader asking is “What the hell is going on?” You need clarity in your screenplay, you can’t just “explain later” – this means the reader will lose interest, we need to know what’s going on a piece at a time. You can’t just ask a plethora of questions and leave all the juicy stuff until the last minute.
Conflict And Truth. Jeopardy, drama and feeling able to root for characters are all at the foundations of a good screenplay. We all go through conflict in our own lives, so we want to see characters going through something difficult (or not) and getting out the other side so we can find purpose and meaning in our own lives and the events and situations we find ourselves a part of. In movies, we want a reflection of that shared experience of being a human being on planet Earth and to recognise that experience within the film – truthfulness then is a very important part of this, enabling audience members to identify with the story. We become less interested when things are not plausible emotionally, so keep truth right at the heart of your story – your hero can do crazy, mad things if he’s doing it for a specific, truthful reason. We WANT to believe in the positives – love, redemption, family.
Being Personal. Gordy asserted that we all must be personal with our work, but we also need to recongise where we need to stop too: ask yourself, “Is this just interesting TO ME? Where is the larger idea? Is it big enough?” If this story is TOO personal, too small, can you as the writer go beyond that idea, find something more, make it more universal. Gordy also said that sometimes, you just have to let certain ideas go – they won’t work, no matter what you do: if you have to argue with YOURSELF, then something’s wrong with that idea. Life’s too short! What’s more, if you get rid of that duff idea that’s not working, you create space for new, better ideas!
Authenticity. Sometimes a writer will be afraid of their own idea, because it’s painful to revisit that experience; they will want to write about their pain, but they are afraid of returning to it. So move the pain from your OWN story and put it into another. You can be authentic without being autobiographical.(I particularly identified with this, since I wrote a script about an experience of mine when I was younger and several readers have sympathised with me, sure the horrible things in it actually happened to me. They didn’t. What was true though was the “essence” of the story, not the events. For one thing, if it was true I’d be in prison right now for murdering one of my close family!).
The Farther You Go. Stories that are the most interesting are those that travel the furthest in terms of the character’s journey. If a character goes from dishonest to honest for example, that’s far more interesting than a character who goes from a *little bit* shady to something similar. Whilst this might seem obvious, characters changing over the course of a narrative is one of the aspects I see happening the LEAST in scripts I see, so I think this is definitely worth some serious thought when planning our drafts.
You Are Your Own Instrument. Other crafts have specific tools – but all we have is ourselves. Therefore if we really care about our writing and about the story we are telling, we can inspire others to care too.
Hi Lucy – thanks a lot for the report. I particularly like the point about clarity; my main MA project had ‘mystery’ elements, so when I was plotting it out I tried to plant all sorts of ‘clever’ false trails and red herrings. However, working with my tutor made it apparent that I was coming up with needless complications to avoid focusing on the characters’ development, decisions and relationships – the real engine of any script.
A tool that I find useful when analysing scripts (including my own) is to ask myself regularly what’s the dramatic question that the audience is going to be asking at any particular moment, as well as identifying when and how that question changes. North by Northwest is a great script for practicing on. (Sorry, I can’t remember where I picked up the ‘dramatic question’ approach.)
Thanks for the post Lucy. All excellent points. I think the difficulty with issues of clarity lies in just how much you tell your audience. How many clues do you give because we can all join up the dots when we watch something on screen. The best (I think) is when you set up expectations then blow them all away. Still working on that one.
sage advice, he’s good…
An excellent summary. Pity you didn’t make it to day 2. It was a lot of fun, people had become far more relaxed. He even had us acting out people’s material.
Was good to meet you too.