Helping you tell better stories

Helping you tell better stories;

closer to your vision than you ever dreamt possible.


Seth Godin on why marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department

This has been my favourite marketing lecture for a few years now so I'm not sure why I haven't posted about it yet. It's a really stunningly good talk from marketing expert Seth Godin, who you may know from his TED appearances. It's an hour long, but surprisingly easy to watch all in one go.

The talk was delivered in 2008 to a conference of software developers, but his expertise and message cuts right across multiple industries and has huge relevance to the film business and particularly to you and me. I strongly feel the industry will soon be divided into people who understand this stuff and succeed... and those who don't, and repeatedly fail to stand out in the marketplace.

His basic thesis is that as content creators we have to give up forever the idea that we can just make our product and then hand it off to someone else to figure out how to sell it. Any film producer who's laboured for years and/or put their own money into making a film, only to fail to sign a sales agent or find distribution will understand the significance of this.

But I'll go further: with global online distribution at our fingertips we now have an unprecedented opportunity to reach audiences just as large as any Hollywood studio's. Not that we need to of course – our budgets are far lower – but by getting people to talk about our films, and share them using (for instance) the Distrify player, we create the option of opening up huge markets.

Self-distribution aside – what does your sales agent want you to bring them every single time? Simply put they want something they can sell to their buyer. And their buyer wants something they can sell to their buyer, and so on down the line. If you always give your customer something they think they can sell, you will always be able to make money. This simple concept alone, if understood universally within the film industry, would revolutionise the supply-chain and create a lot more prosperity for everyone virtually overnight.

And what's the best way to achieve this? Create something remarkable. Literally something that, while in some vague genre sense feels comfortably familiar, is simultaneously something that people feel compelled to remark upon. Similar but Different. Build it into your film from the outset. I'll let Seth take it from here, as he explains why marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department:

This is how the studios do it. This does not apply to us.

We all live on Highway 11. Do something remarkable.

Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.


Lincoln – Trailer Analysis

How do you write an issue-based film? How do you logically arrange and present the various arguments? How do you structure a series of events – either real or imagined – that best delineate and describe the points you want to make? Indeed how do you even decide on which points you want to make and what to leave aside? What are the themes? What are the characters’ values? What are the main points of conflict, and what drives the story forward?

The mark of a really good screenplay – at least if you judge it the same way the screenwriting members of The Academy seem to – is that it actually be really about something. That’s how to get your film ranked in the high echelons. But what precisely differentiates a great Oscar-worthy film from something frivolous like, say, American Reunion?

I think it’s got to be the long-term implications – to an individual or society – of the events and of their resonant themes. Thus a film like Precious can be just as emotionally powerful and moving as something on a grand scale like Schindler’s List, because the long-term implications for the protagonist are immense.

It's almost as if a film is one long sprawling debate two hours long. A heated argument made up of smaller arguments, each valid in their own way... from the perspective of those fighting their corner.

(Interestingly in a film like Precious the arguments the protagonist uses are arguments against herself – yet another reason why the film is so moving and powerful.)

- // -

As luck would have it, the trailer for the new Oscar-bait Spielberg movie came out last week and it’s certainly got lots of big and powerful stuff going on: the end of the American Civil War, and Lincoln’s continued attempts to reunite the nation while simultaneously abolishing slavery... pretty heady stuff. Here it is if you didn't get around to it yet.

I thought it would be fun to break down the dialogue in the trailer and see what themes we’re dealing with once Janusz Kaminski’s photography and John Williams’ rousing score have been stripped out:

LINCOLN (V.O.) – We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. [Final words of the Gettysburg Address]

FRANCIS PRESTON BLAIR (Ally/Mentor) – We can’t tell our people they can vote yes on abolishing slavery, ‘less at the same time we can tell ‘em that you’re seeking and negotiating peace. [Incidentally – newspaperman and advisor Blair is played here by Hal Holbrook who was Abraham Lincoln in the 1976 TV series Lincoln. Here he lays out for the audience just what the main conflict is – how can you unite a nation at war while at the same time proposing laws unpopular with the South?]

SECRETARY OF STATE WILLIAM SEWARD (Ally?) – It’s either the amendment or this confederate peace – you can’t have both. [Seemingly intractable obstacle. Which will Lincoln sacrifice?]

ALEXANDER STEPHENS (Vice President of the Confederate States of America – Opponent!) – How many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration? [Making it personal.]

UNSPECIFIED OPPONENT #1 – Congress must never declare equal those who God created unequal! [Insert Lincoln's wife Mary Todd Lincoln and her African American friend, Elizabeth Keckley, looking on dolefully from the viewing gallery. Re-assertion of the values and power of the opposition, putting a face to the oppressed underdog group – a stakes character.]

UNSPECIFIED OPPONENT #2 – Leave the Constitution alone! [Shouted. Vociferous opposition.]

LINCOLN – We’re stepped out upon the world’s stage now - the fate of human dignity in our hands! Blood’s been spilt to afford us this moment, now, now, now! [The slavery issue is his priority.]

THADDEUS STEVENS (Ally) – Abraham Lincoln has asked us to work with him to accomplish the death of slavery. [It seems an ally might have come to the rescue.]

MARY TODD LINCOLN – No one’s ever been loved so much by the people. Don’t waste that power. [Another ally, but this one is both encouraging and warning him, so perhaps she’s also a mentor. And the stakes are big for her too – her family was torn apart by the opposing values of the civil war. She had brothers who fought and died for the South.]

UNKNOWN – This fight is for the United States of America! [Pretty specific reminder of the stakes.]

LINCOLN – Do we choose to be born? Are we fitted to the times we’re born into? [Self-doubt with a metaphysical curiosity, signifying a deep and philosophical mind.]

SAMUEL BECKWITH (Ally) – Well I don’t know about myself... YOU may be. [His contemporaries were aware of his special place in history.] [Interestingly this is the only actual dialogue exchange in the trailer. It speaks volumes about the tone of the film and to some of its themes. Best of all it contrasts the actions of a celebrated historical figure with his internal struggles and self-doubt.]

LINCOLN – This settles the fate for all coming time! Not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come! Shall we stop this bleeding? [African American characters applauding emotionally, and so are we, the viewer at home, because we know how it turned out... eventually.]

- // -

So that’s how you do that. Identify the salient issues of your story, make sure all your characters have a position, strong values, beliefs and great passion, and give your protagonist inner, outer and societal conflict. Boom. I’m being frivolous of course, because this stuff is really, really hard. But having said that, I believe it can be learned.

The real trick isn’t just writing powerful thematic issues-led dialogue that adds power to your screenplay, it’s getting it out onto the page in an easy-to-follow form.

(Despite trite quotes to the contrary, cinema is about show and tell. Visuals can convey some thematic information, but only some. In my opinion, and as we've seen in the above example, the best way to convey theme is by having characters who believe in something passionately vocalise their values. That’s where your film derives the true core of its conflict.)

So let's say you’ve got all your themes and characters’ values worked out and you want to arrange them into a coherent argument across the two hours of your film. How do you construct a rising crescendo of scenes, each moving the story forward, each elucidating the themes, values and positions of the characters, while simultaneously interacting with the real world of people, animals and things. In short – what's the best way to go about arranging this stuff on your timeline?

Stay tuned – I’m gonna cover that in part 2.

(Until then – if you happen to be an expert on the American Civil War please let me know in the comments any character names I wasn't able to work out, and I'll update accordingly.)


Laurie Hutzler - Character Map

I've been meaning to write a post about Laurie Hutzler for ages – her approach to planning and rewriting stories is incredibly powerful, and her Character Map is one of my favourite tools.

What Is A Character Map?

The Character Map is a proven way to develop characters that have a rich compelling emotional journey and a dynamic set of internal and external personal conflicts.  Use this tool to create characters that leap off the page in your screenplay or teleplay.  Great screenwriting begins with great characters.  Great characters with a compelling emotional journey make your script truly memorable.

Some of the terminology she uses differs slightly from Truby (specifically his Four Necessities which I wrote about here) but they're certainly compatible and complementary approaches to the same goal.

Hutzler's approach has you ask six questions of each character – What is their greatest fear? What is the greatest misconception about them? What is their strongest trait? What is their biggest foible, or shortcoming that gets them in trouble when things are otherwise going well? What do they most admire in others? What trait in others sets their teeth on edge? – and brings you to a far greater understanding of your characters and the relationships / conflicts between them than you might have thought possible.

A key part of understanding and incorporating these tools into your process is that she initially encourages you to ask these six questions of yourself. Do it now – it's really illuminating – especially when she reveals the hidden truth behind what your responses really mean.

Seeing this approach reveal things you perhaps didn't know about yourself demonstrates immediately how rich and multi-dimensional your fictional characters can be, and allows you to easily draw on these facets of your own persona and psyche in rounding-out your creations.

The process also works extremely well for seeking to understand the inner-workings of real people if, for instance, you find yourself writing a biographical script. Applying these questions to your subject allows you to draw real-feeling complexity and depth from, for example, long-departed historical figures whose bigger actions are known, but whose private thoughts can only be the subject of conjecture.

(Check out this analysis of the Lincoln trailer btw.) (Way more interesting than it sounds.)

Of course a rich understanding of your characters' inner lives is of limited use if you're not conveying that to the audience, and so Hutzler has a method to map your answers to the timeline of your story that will provide a rich character arc complete with a couple of speedbumps along the way.

Here she does get a little more esoteric than Truby. The complexity is well worth drilling into. Essentially the end result boils down to whether or not your main character(s) can transcend their fears and entrenched beliefs & behaviours, and become a better version of themselves, both for themselves and for others. For truly meaningful storytelling this choice should be a moral one – something affecting the happiness of others.

Can your hero learn so much from their struggle that they are willing to take a leap of faith at the end, cast off old ways, and become the person they never dared dream they could be? That's the central question of a lot of the world's best storytelling.

I hope you get as much out of this technique as I did. Let me know in the comments how you get on with Laurie Hutzler's approach.

Female Character Flowchart

I've just been sent this Female Character Flowchart and, while I'm not sure how much practical value it has to your writing, it is funny and should serve as a constant reminder to those who may need one that clichéd stock character types – male or female – will count against you every time.

Write your own unique real people as they struggle in difficult or outrageous circumstances. If you're stuck on this, populate your stories with people you know in real life. You don't have to tell them. In fact it may be better that you don't.

Better yet draw on your own character – your own hopes and fears, values and idiosyncrasies. Each one of us is an unlimited mine of realistic material. Whatever your preferred process – avoid (or transcend) the clichés.

That reminds me – if you have a spare month to kill, or otherwise have a lot of urgent procrastinating to get through, there are few better places for a writer to waste time than here:

TV Tropes 
This wiki is a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction. 
Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means "stereotyped and trite." In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them. 
The wiki is called "TV Tropes" because TV is where we started. Over the course of a few years, our scope has crept out to include other media. Tropes transcend television. They reflect life. Since a lot of art, especially the popular arts, does its best to reflect life, tropes are likely to show up everywhere.

If you ever escape from its clutches – happy writing.