Pre Frenzy Week 3- We Got the Beat

By now you’ve done some work on your characters and found out what makes them tick. Hopefully you’ve discovered their major character flaw through listening to their back story. You’ve figured out what it is they need most in life even if they haven’t figured it out yet. You’ve also come up with a situation, a quest so to speak, to help them get what they want. After all, that’s what storytelling is all about–creating a situation that forces your protagonist to get over himself and live a better life. (Yes, even in tragedy and death the protagonist grows.)

Last week’s exercise was a sort of fill in the blanks of the ten elements of screenwriting. Here’s an example of what yours might look like:

1. Back Story— Rumer’s father, an assassin for SI:7, is accused of treason against the King of Stormwind and executed in front of her and her sister, Whisperra. While trying to help Rumer escape their father’s murderers, Whisperra is kidnapped, and Rumer is left to fend for herself. Growing up alone and despised for her family name, Rumer takes to drinking and refuses to form close relationships with anyone except her giant saber mount and companion. She travels Azeroth searching for her sister.

2. Internal Need–to trust and open herself up to others without fear of abandonment; to allow others to help her.

3. Inciting Incident–While chasing yet another lead on her sister’s whereabouts, she learns her father’s charge of treason could have been part of a larger conspiracy against the entire Stormwind Alliance.

4. External Goal–to stop the murder of King Varian Wrynn of Stormwind.

5. Preparation–She infiltrates SI:7 to confront Master Mathias Shaw, who supposedly ordered her father’s execution. She gathers a group of would-be heroes, a healer, a hunter, a magic user, and a warrior, to raid the conspirators’ stronghold and rescue her sister. She devises a strategy for stopping the assassination attempt on King Wrynn.

6.Opposition–Death Knight Malthrassus, advisor to the king and head of covert operation within the Empire to destroy the Alliance. (By the way, it’s important to do just as much character work on your antagonist as well to discover his/her character flaw, internal need, and external goal. You might want to look for something in his/her back story to create sympathy. Antagonists need not be wholly evil, just as protagonists should not be perfect.)

7. Self-Revelation–After rescuing her sister, Rumer knows that together they can clear their father’s name and stop Malthrassus from destroying the Empire.

8. Obsession–Dark Moment: Whisperra is mortally wounded during the escape, and Rumer is left alone once again. New Stimulus: She will avenge her sister’s death by asking her companions for help.

9. Battle–While her friends and SI:7 armies come to her aid, ultimately she must fight Malthrassus alone before he assassinates King Wrynn.

10. Resolution–Rumer and her merry band of heroes are honored by the King of Stormwind. Whisperra’s life is commemorated in a statue. Their father’s name is cleared. The leader of SI:7 offers her a position as his second-in-command.

…or some reasonable facsimile.

So while you were exploring the elements as they pertain to your own story, you probably started getting ideas for scenes. Great! Now it’s time to connect the dots and really begin to plot out your script by creating a beat sheet or step outline.

Sometimes you’ll see the word “beat” written within a script. This generally indicates a moment of pause for dramatic effect before a reaction or response. As writers, we don’t want to dictate every action a character will make–that’s the actor’s job–but there may be a specific place where we want to make sure the change of action/reaction isn’t missed.

A beat is also an exchange of behavior in action or reaction. Beat by beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene. This will be discussed more next week when we work on subtext, but for now think of beat as the motivations behind each character’s actions or dialogue: to beg, to condone, to scorn, etc.

For our purposes this week, a beat sheet (it’s very hard not to write beet sheet or beat sheat) is a one or two-sentence statement that simply and clearly describes what happens in each scene. It can also be called a step-outline in which you number each scene, describing not only what happens in it, but how it builds and then turns again. Remember, each scene should attempt to answer a question as well as pose a new one. In this sense, you can also think of each scene as its own little cliffhanger because what happens in one scene should naturally move the story forward to the next one.

As we begin to plot out our story based on the revelations we’ve made on our characters, their actions and reactions, we also begin to think about structure. The most common structure you’ll probably be working in is the three-act structure. And once you grasp the inner-workings of each act, it becomes much easier to plan scenes.

Here’s a brief overview of each act.

Act One: We meet the major (and some of the not so major) characters in the story, particularly the protagonist. In a few brief scenes, we establish the opening value of the story (positive or negative or somewhere in between), the status quo of the protagonist’s life up to this point, perhaps a glimpse at his or her internal need, and a bit of back story. There may also be the beginnings of a subplot or two. But the biggest thing that happens in Act One is the Inciting Incident–something must happen to upset the status quo. It may also upset the protagonist because, remember, he has a character flaw that is trying to prevent him from acting. (Think about what he fears most.) Next, we introduce some kind of external goal that the protagonist thinks will solve the problem presented by the inciting incident and make everything better. This comes directly out of your premise statement. And to end the first act, we must see the protagonist taking the initial action to achieve that goal. This can be called a plot point, turning point, or first major reversal. The opening value has just changed in a big way.

Act Two: This is the bulk of your story and is all about creating conflicts, barriers, and antagonism. Create progressive complications by gradually raising the stakes. How far is your protagonist willing to go to achieve this goal? With each action and each reaction to these complications, she will pass the point of no return and a new level of conflict is aroused. This is also where we see our character preparing herself and devising strategies to overcome each new obstacle. We meet the antagonist full-force. We witness the strength and magnitude of all his resources and power so that it’s no wonder our protagonist fails. And finally, our main character must face her darkest moment. This is the moment when she becomes conscious of her internal need and despite losing everything, she has to continue toward that goal–even if it means death. Just as Act One ended with a plot point, so does Act Two. Our main character, now obsessed with achieving the external goal and the internal need, tries one more time. Think of what action, rather than dialogue, she will take.

Act Three: Short and sweet. We present our battle scene/climax/showdown/big finish. There is a moment of crisis in which the wrong decision at this time will lose the external goal for both the antagonist and the protagonist. There is no going back for either of them. There is no more planning. There is only doing. They square off. Who wins? Regardless of who does, our protagonist has to achieve his/her internal need. Anything left after the goal has been won is called the resolution. In a scene (or two at most) we can show the spread of climactic effects on other characters by bringing them all to one location like the beach or a party or a wedding. Now with everyone in one spot, we can wrap up any subplots, and we can provide a “slow curtain” for the audience to get their emotions under control. Didn’t you ever wonder why some people stay to watch the credits (myself included)?

Week 3 Exercise: Write a beat sheet/step-outline of your entire screenplay. Just one to two sentences will do, and it doesn’t matter where you start either. Sometimes it might be easier to start toward the climax and work your way backwards. Another idea is to write each scene on an index card then arrange them in an order that seems sensible and logical to you. If you’re a visual writer, and you probably are if you’re interested in screenwriting, it might be easier to visually see your story enfold before you as you shuffle cards into order. And don’t forget to include subplots as well as the main conflict.

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Pre Frenzy Week 1: Your Idea in Micro and Macro

So you’ve come up with an exciting idea for this year’s ScriptFrenzy. Your screenplay/stageplay/teleplay is dramatic, thought-provoking, and most of all entertaining. That’s great! I want to hear all about it.

In ten seconds or less. How about in ten words or less?

We call this the premise, and it can come in many forms, but being able to state your main conflict in one simple sentence will help keep your thoughts focused as you continue to flesh out the details of your story. “The premise should be the driving force behind every event in your screenplay. A good premise is derived from emotions–love, hate, fear, jealousy, desire, etc.–and revolves around a character, a conflict and a conclusion” (http://www.fathom.com/course/21701762/session1.html).

Here are some different types of premises you might have already encountered.

1. What If?:  Basically, you want to know what will happen given a certain situation: What would happen if a shark swam into a beach resort and devoured a vacationer? JAWS.

2. The Logline: Look no further than your local TV listings: Molly Ringwald is an underpriviledged Cinderella choosing between two prom princes: a charming preppy (Andrew McCarthy) and a disarming buddy (Jon Cryer).

3. When, Then: If you follow this format, you can’t lose: When Dr. Emmet Brown, enjoying a peaceable existence in 1885, is about to be killed by Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen, then Marty McFly must travel back in time to save his friend. BACK TO THE FUTURE III

4. Or you might just rely on a general concept: Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew set in a modern day high school. TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU

No matter which type of premise you choose to get your point across, there a few things to keep in mind. You’ll want to have some idea who the main character and the antagonist are, what their conflict is, what change will result from the conflict, and why the main character needs to take action.

Sometimes writers don’t find their premise until after they’ve fully explored their characters and plotlines. The best way to accomplish this is to write a treatment of your screenplay. Treatments are written in present tense in a narrative form and is a moment-by-moment outline of each scene that includes information on setting, characters, subtext, subplots, and inner motivations. Treatments can be anywhere from one to 100 pages or more. It all depends on how in depth you want to get. Using the treatment as a pre-writing exercise allows your thoughts to roam unchecked. By the time you’ve finished, you may find your idea is more solid or it might have changed completely. Regardless, you’ll be more organized and focused when it comes to writing scenes.

Exercise One: Write a premise for your script idea in one sentence.

Just so you know I’m really doing this too, here’s mine: While on a quest to find her estranged sister, a Night Elf assassin uncovers a conspiracy that could bring down the entire Alliance faction, thus discovering the real reason behind their father’s execution.

Exercise Two: Write a treatment, or an expanded outline, for your script idea covering all the major and minor characters and plots. Include scenes and bits of dialogue as they reveal themselves.

Next week, we’ll discuss character and characterization.

Dreamweaver

Even in my dreams I like to control things because, last night while in one, I thought up an idea for an adult novel. I know, what the hell do I know about being an adult let alone writing for them. But it seemed kind of cool and I ran with it. Three women, all friends and all with their own expertise, run a business. The business happens to be procuring real estate for vacation homes. One woman is an expert in real estate, another in travel, and the third in design or something. Clients would approach them to find and decorate a property overseas.

So it wasn’t exactly thrilling.

My brain then transformed the idea into three elderly women in the jewelry business who had their own reality show. Two very stark and emaciated women enter the shop looking for jewelry to complete their outfits of sheer belly dance choli tops and harem pants. Neither woman had ever worn anything that was related to monotheism.

I can’t make up this stuff.

But even when I awoke, I thought there might be something to my original vision of three friends in some kind of cool business together. What the plot could be, I have no idea.

Coincidentally, my friend relayed a dream she had of us about to fight high school zombies until she becomes scared and runs away leaving me to kill them all myself. Now this is a story! But not one I’m going to write.

These thoughts of dreams led me to come up with the writing exercise I’m sharing here.

Take one of your dreams and write about it. The homework I gave my friend, who is distraught over her fear of zombies, was to rewrite the dream on paper. I told her she could be scared and run away, but she must write it into the story that she returns to help me kill all the zombies, and we are victorious.

The dream of my designing women is a bit harder to work with because nothing much happened, but I still think there might be something to these characters if I could put them into action.

You never know, one of your dreams may end up being the next vampire cult phenomenon.

Inundation

For most Westerners, January 1 marks the beginning of a new year when people take stock of their lives and resolve to change for the better. If I were Chinese, I would be celebrating New Year on the second new moon after the winter solstice, or during the inundation of the Nile River if I were living in ancient Egypt.

I guess I’m not any of these people because I celebrate my new year in October. Columbus Day weekend, specifically. It is the anniversary of my freedom, of a time when I ventured out completely alone like The Fool, stepping over the precipice into Life and starting over. I had hopes of doing great things.

It is now three years later and time to once again reevaluate my life and my accomplishments.  So where are they? I failed to lose 10 pounds, I failed to finish any novel/screenplay, failed to get a new a job, failed to save money for a Christmas or retirement fund (well, actually I did then had to dip into it for an emergency), and failed to find true love.

So much for resolutions.

Of course that’s not to say I didn’t accomplish anything this year–just not the things I had planned on.  In fact, I did some pretty amazing things that just came out of nowhere. I started taking belly dance lessons and eight weeks later I joined a dance troupe for public performance. I raised over $3700 and walked 60 miles in a heat wave to help end breast cancer. I earned my preliminary teaching license and recertified as a Group Fitness Instructor. And I got accepted into an initial teaching license for secondary education program at the local university.

But how does one balance these accomplishments with the failure of the ones that mean the most to me? Did somewhere along the subconscious road I figure that losing ten pounds or finishing a novel was too hard and so spent my time and energy on doing things I knew I could achieve?

While I try to decipher that mystery, I will comfort myself with the knowledge that the changing of the seasons, the phases of the moon, and the flow of the Nile River is inevitable.  As is the opportunity for doing great things in another New Year.