Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Writing For The Action Genre & How To Avoid "Directing From The Page"

One of the most tedious jobs for a writer of the screen persuasion is knowing their vision well enough to express it clearly on a page. Sometimes you have a 'cool idea' and want to slop it out, but it comes out clunky with bad formatting and a bit of copyright infringement on the last Die Hard flick.

Well that's just not ok.

From my perspective, as a writer from the drama genre, the action genre seems to be the lexicon of 'tough' screenwriting. It's not a genre that a first time screenwriter will do well in, normally. Why? Let me extrapolate.

You have to know all of your formatting rules and techniques, COLD. You have to be ablsolutely educated on every in and out of the craft. Action, or good action, or even an action screenplay that would sell to the industry, must be high concept, it must be unique, it must be interesting. You've gotta know your stuff to pull it off. A first time writer doesn't have the experience under their belt to support such a feat. And should a first timer start off on an action flick, you're nearly pre-destined to create a hot mess.

From the first script you write until the second, third, tenth, or twentieth-- you're learning! You learn the whole way, even if you're not trying to learn. And the more you learn, the more you'll find to correct in that first action screenplay you've written. Soon, you'll be chunking and chopping, replacing, renaming, digging plot holes and forcing inconsistencies. You'll rearrange your scenes and you'll revamp your style. This all equals a hot mess.

So how, you ask, can GopherGrrrL prevent you from making this newb mistake? Well, I can't. I can't keep you from trying the action genre on your first go-round with a script. And maybe I shouldn't anyway because, afterall, if you have potential to become a good screenwriter, you'll realize some time in the process of writing and re-writing this script that its not worth saving. You'll shelve what you have and start on something new and fresh with your new-found knowledge. That's just how it works. I did it myself in the beginning.

I can however give you some pointers, some food for thought, if you're going to try an action screenplay.

In action films over the past one hundred years, we've seen car chases, hostage situations, bank heists, ninja fights, alien invasions and so much more. The biggest lesson that a screenwriter can learn is that there will be many people working together to create this film, and therefore, (as I always tell you) know your role as writer!

1. Don't choreograph a fight on paper.
2. Don't over indulge the damages to a car in a car chase.
3. Don't describe the villian to us as if we were reading about him/her in a novel.

Know your vision, tell your story, but keep it concise. Leave some room for others to interpret. That's what makes a film amazing-- so many personalities and perspectives coming together to create one vision. Its the ultimate melting pot.

So while I could give you a hundred examples here on the page, I'll leave this lesson up to you, the screenwriter, to learn. Let's get into a few more tidbits that will keep you on track as you proceed down that winding road of action genre writing, hm?

Camera Direction

What Is Camera Direction?
Here it comes, I'm going to say it-- Industry writers can do it, but spec writers (you and me) CAN'T. Directors can do it. Spec writers can't.

Camera direction indicates camera movement, camera focus, and camera angles. Example time!

Below are two examples, one correct and one incorrect. The incorrect of the two is a good example of how a new writer may think that the scene should look on film, however they do not know that this decision is no longer up to them once that script passes from their hands into the director's hands... Unless of course the director really wants input from the writer. That could happen.

example 1:
Gretchen, in her gymnastics leotard, tumbles rapidly across the gymnast mat. Camera pans quickly along side her as she tumbles.

She lands a perfect backflip and is statuesque in her poise as her fellow gymnasts cheer. The camera closes in tight on her proud smirk.

The camera pulls back to reveal Gretchen in her cheerleading uniform in front of a large crowd at a football game. She soars through her routine, effortlessly.

example 2:
Gretchen, in her gymnastics leotard, tumbles rapidly across the gymnast mat.

She lands a perfect backflip and is statuesque in her poise as her fellow gymnasts cheer.

Example 1 utilizes the fatal first timer mistake "directing from the page". You're a story teller, Mr. or Ms. Screenwriter. You aren't here to make the calls on where the camera goes or what it does once this baby goes into production. No ifs, and, or buts about it. Those few lines are breaking down the flow of your story.

Let me put it this way. You're reading a novel. Its a gripping tale of suspense and terror, its a dark rainy night and you're enthralled with this book as you read by flashlight light from beneath the covers of your thousand count thread blanket. You read the following paragraph:

"Lucy's hands quivered as she pulled the lever on the mausoleum door. She could only imagine that Quinn's mother had been buried alive, but she couldn't fathom the possibility of the body being reanimated by Voodoo priestess Marie Laveaux. As she pulled back the heavy door, the screech of the aged hinges rang loud and lonesome. (Writers' Note: Hi, My name is Ted. I wrote this novel, remember? I'm on the back sleeve. Flip over and look at my picture real quick. Ok, so anyway, at this point of the story I want you to imagine that there are bats and spiders and shit flocking out the door of the tomb. Oh yeah, and a huge cloud coverage comes over. And, if you want, you can imagine some zombies sneaking up on Lucy from behind because its actually going to happen within the next paragraph. Ok, keep reading. Sincerely, Ted.) Lucy peers into the tomb and sees a herd of mad zombies rushing towards her. She screams."

Ok... what just happened there? Would you read that novel for any other reason than that of which you would stare at a train wreck? (Human curiousity, I mean.)

No! You wouldn't. In fact, its rude of the writer to leave you little notes along the way. Ruins the story! So, don't do that with your script, because everytime you get too wordy or try to direct from the page, this is what experienced screenplay readers will experience. Pain!

Now, that was a tangent, but it was a good way for me to breakdown what I was talking about and beat it into your heads so that you'll remember this the next time you start to type somthing about where the camera pans to.

Back to the examples; you'll notice in the second example (which is also the correct example) that I stopped sooner than the first example did. There's a formatting issue involved here, and that's why I did this, so that I could properly format it and show how you connect two scenes through one action. This is one 'loop hole technique', as I like to call it, that can allow you as the writer to sneak in a 'you have no choice, mr. director' direction.

Take the movie Shaun Of The Dead, for example. If you're familiar with the film then you'll remember the scene where Shaun writes several goals on the marker board on his refrigerator and then falls asleep in the chair across from it, waking up the next morning. This was an exellent segway because it, 1.)went well with the themed pace that the movie so delightfully kept grasp of throughout and 2.) elapsed time in a clever way. So how do you write this in your screenplay, without breaking any rules and without 'directing from the page'? Simple, you don't give the director a choice. Let's use the example from above.

Gretchen, in her gymnastics leotard, tumbles rapidly across the gymnast mat.

She lands a perfect backflip and is statuesque in her poise as her fellow gymnasts cheer. She SMIRKS proudly.


Standing proudly with her signature smirk, Gretchen, in her cheerleading uniform, faces the large crowd of fans at the football game. She soars through her routine, effortlessly.

So now you've given continuation to the first scene, using a somewhat reversed psychology on your director to make him/her think that they should carry 'the smirk' over onto the next scene. You've just made a direction decision from the page without breaking any rules.

Remember though; use your powers for good, not evil, and don't abuse such a clever technique. Only use this if you truly feel that this is necessary.

So, you're a little bit wiser just from reading this.. I hope. Use this advice to further your writing career. Keep studying, keep learning, keep researching and most of all, JUST KEEP WRITING! You'll learn as you go.

A great way to learn about and get the feel for a script is to read as many as possible, so be sure to check out sites like Simply Scripts or Script-O-Rama. If you need some tech support, come visit me and my friends over at Absolute Write's Water Cooler, and then on to the Screenwriting Boards!

1 comment:

Mutuelle sante said...

Thanks it has been a great help, now to avoid "directing from the page" is simple by using your recommendation. Thank you