Gerald Hanks Filmography

Monday, March 31, 2014

Screenwriting Advice: How to Write SUPER-Powerful Characters

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Characters drive stories. Powerful characters give writers reasons to create stories around them. Directors want to create moments around that power. Actors want to channel that power. Audiences want to take part in that power. As a writer, your job it to give them that power in every line of the script. They give audiences someone to watch, to love, to admire, or to hate.

Years ago, I took acting classes in college. One of the tools that the instructor gave us came from an acting book by Robert Cohen called Acting One. In his book, Cohen outlined his techniques with the acronym GOTE:

  • Goal
  • Obstacles
  • Tactics
  • Expectation

Cohen recommended that actors “Get their GOTE” to understand how to portray their characters. As a writer, you can also benefit from this technique, but I've given it a slight twist – not to mention simplifying the mnemonic device. Remember this: every character should have the power of the VOTE.

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V for Victory 
The character's Victory answers the question, “What does he want in this story?” Strong characters either have something that they want to accomplish, protect or regain, which compels them into action.

Character 1: He wants to win the championship.
Character 2: She wants to leave her abusive husband and take the children.
Character 3: He wants to capture the murderer.

This answer always comes in the form of action verb, NEVER a “being” verb. Powerful characters don't whine about their jobs, gaze at their navels or pontificate about the meaning of life.

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O for Obstacles
The character's Obstacles answer the question, “What's stopping him from achieving his Victory?” You must place obstacles in that character's path that force him to go over, under, around, or through them.

Character 1: The current champion is undefeated.
Character 2: Her husband keeps her from the children.
Character 3: He can't get to the evidence he needs.

These Obstacles can be as small as a cancer cell or as large as the entire universe. They can be an innate personality flaw or a fifty-story brick wall, but they have to represent a series of challenges the character must overcome to reach his victory.

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T for Tactics
The character's Tactics answer the question, “What's he going to do to got past the Obstacles and achieve his Victory?” Tactics can not only include the actions the character takes to reach the Victory, but also those actions the character refuses to take.

Character 1: He trains as hard as possible, but refuses to take steroids.
Character 2: She sues for custody, but refuses to reveal a family secret.
Character 3: He uses every method within the system, but he won't break the rules.

In the best stories, the character must choose between his Victory and his original of Tactics. The first choice of Tactics never works (or else the story would be over in thirty seconds), so the character must use Tactics which either are beyond his current abilities or that violate his beliefs. These dilemmas create conflict and ignite the story.

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E for Energy
The character's Energy answer the question, “What drives him to want to achieve his Victory?” While a character's Victory is always tangible, the Energy is usually intangible. The Energy forms the character's emotional driving force throughout the story.

Character 1: He wants to prove himself to his father.
Character 2: She loves her children and wants to rescue them from an abusive environment.
Character 3: He wants to show that the “justice system” can truly deliver justice.

Powerful emotions create meaningful motivations and spur characters into memorable actions. Each character's Energy forms the fuel for their part of the story.

Power of the VOTE
When you develop a VOTE for each character, you give them power. Just as the ballot box gives voters the power to choose their leaders, the VOTE gives characters the power to take control of their side of the story.

If you want to learn how to create strong and diverse characters, contact us at StoryIntoScreenplayBlog [at] gmail [dot] com. You can also follow us on Twitter and Like us on Facebook. We specialize in turning concepts and ideas into screenplays that include powerful characters, dramatic conflicts and memorable moments.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Screenwriting Tips: What is Plot?

When describing their projects, aspiring screenwriters often hear many of the same questions:

“What's the plot?”

“What's the story?”

“What's the theme?”

“What's it about?”

Some rookie writers may not even understand the difference between plot, story, theme, sequence and structure. While some of these differences can appear subtle at first glance, a writer who understands these differences can create a rich, deep, fascinating story, regardless of the medium.

Screenwriting Tip #1: Plot vs. Sequence of Events

Many writers begin describing their plot as a sequence of events. They treat the plot like a series of stacked dominoes knocking each other down and creating a beautiful pattern as they fall. The difference between a sequence of events and a plot is this: falling dominoes create a sequence of events; a couple sharing an intimate moment in the same room as the dominoes and causing them to fall is a plot.

Screenwriting Tip #2: Plot vs. Structure

Numerous screenwriting teachers subscribe to a particular structure when instructing students on how to develop their plots. Some of the most notable include Syd Field's three-act structure, Blake Snyder's “Beat Sheet” and Chris Soth's “mini-movie method”. All of these structures are highly useful in developing a plot, but they are not intended to act as substitutes for a plot, nor are they meant to place limitations on an original idea. The structure serves as the dressmaker's dummy, but the designer must still wrap, stitch and cut the fabric to make the dress to fit that dummy.

Screenwriting Tip #3: Plot vs. Message

Writers in some genres feel compelled to use their plots as the means to deliver a sermon, rather than to tell a story. As the legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn was quoted as saying, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." The main function of a plot is to show the character's journey, not to hector an audience into following the writer's beliefs.

Screenwriting Tip #4: Plot vs. Theme

On the other end of the spectrum are the writers who confuse plot and theme. These writers see the primary function of the plot as a means to make grand declarative statements on the nature of humanity, relationships and the universe at large. While such efforts can appear to be deeply philosophical and artistically ambitious, they still fail to serve the main goal of a screenplay: telling a story. Here's a hint: if the logline or description includes all “being” verbs (is/are/was/were) and no “action” verbs, then you've written a thesis, not a screenplay.

Screenwriting Tip #5: Plot vs. Action

Another big mistake rookie screenwriters make is that they use their plots to move their characters around like pieces in a board game. They see the characters as servants of their overarching plot, not masters of their own lives. Audiences want to see active characters, not puppets jerked around on strings by an omnipotent puppeteer, even in movies that feature puppets. The best scripts have characters that drive the action, not ones that sit in the passenger seat and wait for the inevitable collision.

If you want to learn how to find the plot in your story, contact us at StoryIntoScreenplayBlog [at] gmail [dot] com. We specialize in turning stories, concepts and ideas into screenplays that you can present to agents, managers and producers to launch your screenwriting career.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Screenwriting and March Madness: Final Four Things You Should Do Before Sending off Your Screenplay

For fans of college hoops, March is the most marvelous month of the year. The annual NCAA men's basketball tournament, also known as “March Madness”, gives fans the chance to watch dozens of games, fill in tournament brackets, compete for prizes and possibly win some cash and prizes in friendly (legal) wagers. The goal of each team in this highly competitive tournament is to “survive and advance” in an effort to reach the Final Four and the National Championship game.

For screenwriters, March can also be a maddening month, as both first-timers and veteran writers prepare to submit their scripts to various screenwriting contests. The deadline for this year's Scriptapalooza competition is April 14, while the Austin Film Festival deadline is April 30 and the Script Pipeline deadline is May 1. All of these contests represent opportunities for aspiring screenwriters to “survive and advance” in their careers.

Before you can reach the “championship” level – whatever that means to you – you must go through the “Final Four” steps to prepare the script for submission.

#4: Don't Shoot! Like a nervous freshman in his first tournament game, a rookie screenwriter may be tempted to “shoot” too much. Spec scripts should not include cuts, close-ups, pans or other camera directions. These directions show contest judges that the writer is a newbie and may have received his education from reading shooting scripts rather than spec scripts. Writers establish the story, but choosing the shots falls on the director and cinematographer.

#3: Drive the Lane. Aggressive players look for chances to drive down the free throw lane to get easy baskets, draw fouls and go to the free throw line. Their aggressive play gives their teams more chances to win. Aggressive screenwriters use action verbs and short, quick dialogue. Don't use the script to tell the reader what happens, show it on the page. Save the purple prose for your best-selling novel – where the screenwriter who will write the movie adaptation will cut it all anyway.

#2: Stay Active. Since only one player on the floor can have the basketball at any one time, his four teammates must keep moving and stay active to get open shots and find weaknesses in the defense. Writers must make sure their story stays active, even in the slowest scenes. You don't need car chases, explosions or hardcore sex in every scene, but you do need conflict, escalation and tension. If a scene doesn't have these elements, cut it and replace it with one in which the characters are actively pursuing their goals.

#1: Play in the Present. Teams in the tournament must forget their previous performance and must not look past their upcoming opponent. They must focus on the present if they want to “survive and advance”. Screenplays also focus on the present, as they always use present tense in their actions and descriptions. Too many rookie writers, especially those transitioning from prose to screenplays, fail to account for something as simple as the use of present tense.

Overtime: Focus on the Fundamentals. The best players in the game practice their fundamentals to the point that they become second nature. They analyze their game tape for every possible flaw, since they know that one minor slip can cost their team the game. Screenwriters should also focus on the fundamentals of writing, such as grammar, punctuation and spelling. Writers should go over their scripts with pen and paper, without relying on their software's spelling and grammar checking systems, to avoid making a simple yet fatal error.

With just a little effort, you can plant the “seeds” of a winning screenplay and hoist your own trophy, just like the players in Dallas on April 7.

When you're ready to turn your next story idea into a screenplay, get in touch with us at StoryIntoScreenplayBlog [at] gmail [dot] com.

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P.S. Kansas, Arizona, Virginia, Louisville, with Arizona winning the title over Kansas 82-76.
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