Category Archives: Technique

Find that ‘Hook’: And Ruin Your Script.

Since grade school, we have been taught to find that “hook,” the little bit of flavor that locks the reader in and make the text more enjoyable and profound. This goes from the five-paragraph essays in jr. high (ugh, remember those?), then research papers in high school and college. Even into screenwriting classes the instructors tell their students to find that one hook that will get others excited to read the script.

Yet another thing I’ve had to un-learn.

I HATE the term “hook”, even more than The Rising Action Model, because though it helps otherwise dry and boring academic papers have that spark of life, the hook does nothing but sabotage creativity for a screenplay. Screenwriters, amateur and professional alike, become so fixated on that one thing, everything else is neglected.

When trailers for Jumper (2008) first came out, I’ll admit it: I was really excited. I love that kind of urban sci-fi stuff and the “hook” of a guy being able to teleport was so engaging I was able to overlook that they made Hayden Christensen the lead (plus they had Samuel L. Jackson, so it couldn’t be all that bad). And yet when I saw the movie, I about threw the remote through my TV! A single hook will not pull a sub-par script from mediocrity and make it a hit.

Too often the term hook becomes synonymous with “gimmick” and either the reader sees right through the ploy or worse, they are pulled in by it, but then let down by the rest of the story. That little spark is a good beginning, but when that screenplay hits the reader’s desk, it needs to be an inferno of creativity, concept, character, premise that the reader will have no choice but to leap from their seat on fire from it. Then, and only then, will your work be taken seriously.

Screw the “hook”, that little blip on the quality meter, and instead focus on these over-arcing elements:

A fresh and intriguing premise – Nothing new under the sun, but you never know what you’ll find turning over a few rocks.

Compelling and identifiable characters – By page 10, we should be in love with your characters, even if it’s “love to hate”.

A primal conflict – A universal theme (not “message”) that speaks to the human condition. Use Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs and keep it as low on the pyrimid as possible.

Yes there is a lot more such as setting, genre, dialogue etc, but these core elements are the crux of any script and there is not a movie that has grossed 100million that does not have all of these in spades. The best way to hook readers into your story, is to write a *good* story.

Happy Monday everyone and may you all have successful and productive week!

Raising the Stakes: the Midpoint Crisis

I’ve recently seen a movie that I was really excited for. It was okay, had a simple plot, amazingly shot, a bit of whimsy, a turn or two of dark humor, engaging characters, decent performances, and from a critical standpoint was nothing all that special but I personally really liked it. One problem: I was bored. Through out the whole of the story was “fight to stay alive” and in the beginning that was enough. But then after a while it was just tedium; there was no real change in stakes, no surprise plan or action that made me sit up in my seat. By the time the climax began to unfold, I had already been there for two hours and was a bit blazé about the whole thing. I would have probably enjoyed it more if it was running in the background while I did paperwork or something. Boring.

So what happened? What would make a movie that seem pretty cool in the trailers (flippin’ incredible actually) then just feel like it was in second gear throughout the whole thing. My answer: sloppy midpoint.

In the middle of the second act, there needs to be a shift in stakes, something the audience wasn’t expecting and has suddenly made the protagonist’s job a hullavalot harder.

The classic “Rising Action Model” I was taught in my intro-to-film class, I absolutely **HATE**. My questioning why teachers give overly simplistic lessons that are just going to have to be relearned later aside, this looks about as boring as the movie I saw. A slow, steady trudge uphill that crests, then ends. Bored.

No idea why I was taught this. It never helped me then, doesn't help me now.

What this model should be to more accurately show what happens at the midpoint crisis is that halfway up the hill, just when the protagonist feels that he can do it, he falls down a hidden trap set by the antagonist. Immediately it’s not a just a climb and having to fight normal hill climb stuff, but now the antagonist is actively working against the protagonist. And very much succeeding.Crappy stick figures!!! :D Very poud of my crappy stick figures.

This is the crisis point, where one turns to the other and says, “Dude, I think we’re in deep sh*t,” where the difficult but attainable goal now seems next to impossible, where a simple trek up a hill becomes a battle for surviving a fall, 147 hours style. It becomes more intense, more dangerous, and above all: personal. If the antagonist/protagonist relation didn’t exist, it sure as hell does now. Only by overcoming the antagonists obstacles does the strength, will, and determination bloom in the protagonist and becomes more: a hero.

This MUST happen in every movie, and there is not a story that I love that does not have this. And yet, I too often see sloppy midpoints and then the movie loses its potential and even as the action rises, my interest declines.

Stakes. Raise them. (I’m talking to you Hollywood)

I hope everyone had a wonderful weekend and I wish everyone a productive and successful week! 😀

The Exposition Express

The Exposition Express is a term I like to use (I pulled it from a Rifftrax commentary) when the information is offered in such quantity and force, the audience feels like it’s been railroaded (haha pun!). This happens in the Matrix sequels, the Star Wars prequels, all the Transformers movies, and a host of other films where I just sit there and instead of experiencing cinema, I’m continually getting punched in the face with *FACTS* *FACTS* *FACTS!* RRRRAAAOOAWWWWRRR!!!!

So how does this happen and how can we fix this? Well, the Exposition Express breaks either one or both of Blake Snyder’s Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics: Pope in the Pool and Laying Pipe (from his work Save the Cat).

Pope in the Pool is when a character has to give a lot of info, but the situation during this distracts the audience and they don’t feel like they walked out of a lecture hall. And there are a ton of creative ways to do this. The Aaron Sorkin “walk and talk”, the opening scenes of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and the opening scene of Joss Whedon’s Serenity are all brilliant examples of how to get a bunch of information across without it seeming like just a bunch of information.

Laying Pipe dictates that audiences can only handle so much pipe. If you’re writing Minority Report and realize the set-up of everything you want to say takes 40 mins to break into act II… there might be too much going on at the same time. He stops crimes before they happen, cool! There are the politics and morality around this kind of thing, fine. He’s under investigation by FBI, okay. We meet the pre-cogs, alright. He lost a child and has a drug problem, sure… He’s got a mentor who seems untrust worthy… zzzz… So much information dragged out over the better part of an hour that when the fun stuff happens: a cop discovers he’s the killer, I’m too wiped to feel enthused about this. Trim the fat! Audiences are willing to believe that Tom Cruise can kick ass when on the lam (we saw it in Mission Impossible), you don’t need to drill all the science and politics into our heads.

Anyway that last one got a little away from me, but the point is sound. And this needs to be applied to all our screenwriting, screenwriters (talking to myself just as much as everyone else, if not more so).  If you want a ton of back and forth between witty characters, and lets face it a lot of it *is* good, then write for TV or put it in a novel. But writing for the movies is about asking an audience to sit in the dark with a bunch of strangers for two hours and tell them a story they can enjoy and make it feel like their over-priced popcorn and coke were worth it. And this can’t happen by falling into slip-shot, lazy writing.

Exposition is one of the hardest things to do in screenwriting, and it is the mark of a professional who can so so with flair and style.  Happy writing everyone! 😀