Conan the Barbarian–From a Writer’s Perspective

I must admit I was a bit scared to view this movie after approximately 27 years. When it was popular in the 80s, I must have watched it a thousand times because I was super into anything Dungeons & Dragons like, and I never missed a showing of it on TV (and I swear it was on every Saturday afternoon). The reason I was so scared was because I had recently watched Red Sonja on Netflix, another Dino de Laurentiis film from the era that I had once loved, and it was so horrible I was embarrassed for myself for once liking it.

However, I was pleasantly surprised with Conan, and it is still a movie that can live up to today’s standards (mostly). In fact, as far as storytelling goes, it far surpasses a lot of the crap movies that are out there now.

First, Conan the Barbarian (oh, did I mention this is the Arnold Schwarzenegger version) is an epic tale and embodies most of the conventions we assimilate with epic literature: it’s written in a formal style on a serious subject whose main character or protagonist is of a quasi-divine nature. The hero’s actions often determine the fate of a nation and involve super-human deeds and battles with supernatural beings. There is also an element of ceremony or ritual, and a vast setting that encompasses lots of travel.

Aside from just being a great story all around, Conan is a master of showing character through action. By this I don’t mean sword fights because, let’s face it, the fight choreography is a little lame by today standards. Rather, I mean we see the true nature of Conan through his actions and not through dialogue. He actually doesn’t speak much at all and has the least amount of dialogue of any of the characters. But we are still able to see his struggle with his internal need and his desire for the external goal by small actions.

A perfect example of this is when Valeria begs him to forget about saving King Osric’s daughter from Thulsa Doom and take the jewels and love they have at the moment and run away. Without speaking, Conan embraces Valeria back in a sort-of agreement but stares at Thulsa Doom’s talisman over her shoulder, which represents his desire to avenge his family’s death. The next morning, Valeria wakes up alone.

Any screenwriter of any genre would do well to study this movie for character’s actions/reactions as well as a lesson in using dialogue sparingly to convey only the most important information.

Truly, this is an epic movie.

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.

And Out of Character Comes the Ten Elements of Screenwriting

There’s a big difference between character and characterization. Characterization is all the work we do trying to figure out who our characters are. Usually this consists of filling out profiles about personality, mannerisms, private thoughts, etc. Character, however, is created through action–what he or she does and says. Think about it, one of our characters might describe himself as having a good sense of humor; however, we see him getting defensive when his friend makes an innocent joke about his choice of clothes that day. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about creating complex characters–we all have contradictions in our personality–but we better make sure there’s a reason why at this particular moment he chooses to get upset at the comment. We also better make sure we see examples of his normal sense of humor.

Sometimes the best way to get to know our characters is not by creating tons of lists about physical and personality traits but by putting them into situations and see how they act. For instance, you might want to ask open-ended questions, such as if your character was in a house fire and could only rescue one member of her family, whom would she save and why? Or if your character was hurrying to the hospital to see his best friend before surgery and he witnesses a stranger attempting suicide, does he stop to help the stranger? Why or why not?

Once you start to get an idea of who your characters really are and how they respond to certain situations, you can begin to use this knowledge to plot out your story. Wait–I thought we were working on character this week, not plot? Well, we are, but everything that happens in your story, essentially happens because of your characters. This is where the Ten Elements of Screenwriting come in.

1. Back Story–this is everything that happens to your character before the story begins. Basically, this is how your character has evolved into the person he or she is today. Usually, there is some meaningful event or events that shape your character’s life and personality. Sometimes the antagonist may have even played a part in your protagonist’s past. Whatever your character’s back story is it gives us insight into her motives, actions, and responses in the present story.

2. Internal Need–your character needs to acquire a personal attribute to be truly happy with themselves and their life. They might not know what it is on a conscious level, but you should. Think about things involving the self-image like courage, compassion, forgiveness, self-reliance, ability to love. Often the Internal Need is related to or is responsible for their biggest character flaw. You would not say your character needs $1 million dollars to be truly be happy, but she could very well need the sense of security that money represents to her. This may in fact be the reason why she is also misrepresented as being greedy. There will always be something in your character’s back story to support this flaw.

3. Inciting Incident–Remember the house fire I mentioned earlier? This could very well be an inciting incident. As is anything that presents the protagonist with a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome, or a choice to make. It upsets the balance and the status quo of the character’s life, and it begins the action of the story. Inciting incidents come in three types: ACTION–a swimmer is killed by a shark (Jaws), A PIECE OF INFORMATION–the Nazis are about to discover the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark), or even by another character called a CATALYST–Ilsa asks Rick for Letters of Transit to enable her husband’s escape from the Nazis (Casablanca).

4. External Goal–Ah, this is what your protagonist thinks will make her happy–$1 million perhaps? It’s also an action or an object that the main character thinks will solve the problem presented by the Inciting Incident. It could be something like finding that special love, rescuing someone from danger, saving the world from zombies, Nazis, or aliens. It could even be something like finding the Fountain of Youth or the Meaning of Life. Whatever it is, it requires three things to function: STAKES–if the goal isn’t met, something great will be lost (the fate of the world anybody?), OPPOSITION–there has to be someone else intent on making sure the main character doesn’t achieve it, and DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY–the goal must be sufficiently difficult to achieve so that the protagonist changes while trying to reach it.

5. Preparation–now that your protagonist has decided to go after something, he has to devise a plan or strategy on how to do it. He has to gather resources, equipment, and allies. If your main character is the Karate Kid, you would probably have to enlist the help of someone who can train him in martial arts. He’d also have to develop strength and skill not just in body but in mind as well. How he goes about this is the preparation you must come up with as the screenwriter. But you can’t make it too easy for him either. You have to create obstacles or barriers that block your character’s journey, thus allowing him to change and grow as a person. And the stronger he gets, the greater your obstacles have to become. Make your protagonist work for it!

6. Opposition–this is another fancy word for any outside force trying to prevent the main character from reaching his goal. We most often see the opposition being represented by another character called an antagonist, but this isn’t always the case. It could be a vast ocean, a force of nature, or an element of weather. If your opposition is another character, he or she needs to either have the same goal as the protagonist or one that is mutually exclusive. He or she must also have unlimited resources and be more powerful than the main character. Sorry, but even with all the preparation and strategy, the protagonist must fail.

7. Self-Revelation–this is what happens when the main character has essentially failed at all attempts of achieving her internal goal. She runs out of resources and allies, and she becomes conscious of her Internal Need. This is best represented by action rather than dialogue. No one wants to hear a character say, “I finally learned that what I really need is a sense of security, not a million dollars.” How do you know when your main character has reached self-revelation? When she tries one more time to solve the problem or overcome the challenge even in the face of failure and death. Two hours ago, she never would have done that. She would have continued to live unenlightened and remain in the status quo. (Does this sound like your life?) Think of Self-Revelation as coming in two parts: DARK MOMENT–this is the point of failure, and NEW STIMULUS–your character gets up and tries again.

8. Obsession–you may have heard this being referred to as the second plot point. Basically, your protagonist makes that crucial decision to try one last time. He focuses even more intently on the goal despite the stakes being at an all-time high. What does this say about his character? It should say something pretty special because there is nothing left to lose and yet, still, he continues. This is quite honestly the most important thing you can show about your main character. And again, it is shown through an action. It could be something as small as lifting his bloodied head off the ground or as big as getting down on one knee before an ex-lover to ask forgiveness one last time, but it shouldn’t be him saying, “I will live to fight another day.”

9. Battle–Well, what story would be complete without the ultimate showdown between good and evil, protagonist and antagonist? This time there is no compromise; it is a fight to the death, literally and figuratively. This is what the audience has invested all their emotions in, and they want to be satisfied. They want the main character to win, but even if he doesn’t, he has to achieve his Internal Need. He has to grow and change and know he has.

10. Resolution–you showed what your main character was like before she committed to solving some huge problem, before she realized what it is she truly needed to be happy, now you get to show us how she’s changed because she has it. Remember, your protagonist will never be the same person she was at the beginning of the story.

So there you have it. All the ten elements of screenwriting are intrinsically linked to character not characterization.

Exercise for the week: Fill in the details of each of the ten elements as it pertains to the “character” of your protagonist. Although you may not know what each and every obstacle will be, you should have some idea how your main character will respond to them. Try to make sure there is a pretty sizable difference between who your protagonist is at the beginning of the story and who she is at the end.

Bonus exercise: Your new protagonist encounters the old protagonist. How does he or she respond to his or her way of life, insecurities, thought-process, etc.

Insidious: From a Writer’s Perspective

I’d heard from several reliable unrelated sources that Insidious was the scariest movie they’d ever seen, so I had to watch it. At midnight. In the dark.

Umm, not so much. Chock one up for creepy, discordant music, though, and some disturbing images of 1950s doll-like psychotic mannequins. But I’ve seen the fire face guy before in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, the old lady in my head while reading a book, and the little boy in the cap in my dance troupe. None of them are that scary. (Well, except for the old lady in my head.)

A few problems I had with the overall story:

1) The protagonist does not actually know he’s the main character until about two-thirds into the story. The entire first act and much of the second is based on Renai and her actions. She has a relationship with her children (well, ok, I don’t believe there was a need for Foster at all–the screenwriter could have easily had Josh “see” Dalton walking around in his astral body, which would have foreshadowed his whole childhood as an astral-projector), she sees the demons/ghosts/rip-off Buffy bad guys, she makes the family move houses, she contacts the priest, the mother-in-law, and Elise. She wants to be believed; she knows her son’s coma isn’t normal (if it’s possible) and she wants him out of it. (I think there could have been a nice scene where she actually talks to Dalton while he’s in it to reinforce her worry and her fears.)

2) Not one insinuation is made that Josh was having an affair. He was grading middle-school papers until 11:30 at night at school because they needed extra money for Dalton’s medical bills. Even I don’t believe it and it was the truth. First, teachers, correct me if I’m wrong, do not get paid overtime, and they aren’t forced to stay at school to grade papers when they can take them home and do it. Secondly, there is a completely missed opportunity to see Josh in his astral projection mode when he falls asleep at his desk. Yes, we see a black and white image of Dalton in his bed in a coma, but astral projection connotes movement–you travel to different realms. You do not just stand there. How is the audience supposed to know he wasn’t just daydreaming? (At the very least, we should have seen Josh in the scene at his son’s bedside.)

3) If I need to bring a character in (the mother-in-law) halfway through the story to explain something, then I haven’t done my job at creating my main characters or their backstory well. By the end of the first act, we should know who the main character is, what his external goal and internal need are, and whether or not he’s going to take up the challenge of achieving them. Unfortunately, Josh doesn’t even know what his goal is until Elise tells him he has to go into astral projection mode to find Dalton and bring him back. (This didn’t happen until I was completely bored and ready for the movie to be over.)

4) Nothing is explained. I’m so sick of watching scary movies that rely on flashing freaky images across the screen to divert our attention away from the real purpose of watching a movie–to be entertained with a story. I still want to know why the old lady chose to attach herself to Josh, why his mother could see her in the photographs (how could Renai see them for that matter?), what the point was of the demon/doll/mannequin blasting away the 1950s family, and who the antagonist was. If it was supposed to be fire face guy, I need to know a little more about him (like who he was before he died) besides that he sits in a pseudo toyshop/alchemist’s lab and listens to Tiny Tim‘s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” (Incidently, antagonists have their own external goals and internal needs that motivate them just as protagonists do. The audience should be privy to this information as well–even better if you can make us sympathetic to the bad guy at the same time we want to see him defeated.)

I also need to know that Dalton can astral project and that he isn’t just scared to sleep in his room at night. Not to mention why they needed to move to the first house at all. Renai said she didn’t want things to be the same, she wanted to start over–start over from what? Was Josh having an affair? Did she just get released from a mental hospital? I need to know what happened before the story starts, so I can understand why I am coming in at this moment in time.

5) On the other hand, I do not need to know that Renai is an aspiring songwriter. While it’s a nice characteristic, it isn’t intrinsic to the storyline. She’s not even the main character. Isn’t there some detail the writer could have given Josh to actually make us sympathetic to him? As it is, he has no relationship with his wife or children and he doesn’t even take an active role in the plot until Elise tells him to.

6) And lastly, these malevolent beings supposedly want to inflict pain on the living, but I don’t see that really happening in the movie. There is that one dude who looks like The Crow/Joker, and he did try to attack Renai. But other than that, what is his purpose? I think this bit of action would have been better left to fire face guy. Oh, but wait, we’re not sure if he’s the antagonist or not.

There are some major elements of storytelling missing in Insidious, and it isn’t even scary enough to make up for it. Had the screenwriter just made Renai go in to get her son and had Josh lead her and Dalton out, some of the problems with this movie would have disappeared.  Renai would have achieved her external goal of rescuing her son and her internal need for being believed.

Like I said, “Some of the problems.”