Becoming a Hero

What specifically makes Odysseus heroic?

What makes Odysseus heroic is his extraordinary story – extraordinary quest, settings, challenges, feats, distractions (i.e. the character as hero from a story perspective)! He’s got what it takes to be a hero (strength and intelligence above the norm), but we really only imagine him as a hero because he’s put on a True Hero’s Journey (wonderful trials and tribulations across the wine dark sea), he faces major major conflict (God’s wrath, temptations, monsters, geographical constraints), and showcases key values and actions that help him overcome, transforms him in his personal growth arc to achieve a worthy end goal (Save the world / Free Penelope from suitors / Bring glory to his Kingdom).

From a structural standpoint, Homer set it up that way: when we meet Odysseus in Calypso’s cave, stasis equals death – Odysseus has to get out of a dire situation. A Mentor (Athena) sets him on the path of The Hero’s Journey (via Zeus-Hermes-Calypso). Change is required (or die), and movement through the story-story sets this in motion. He embarks on a high-risk journey fraught with monsters and god’s wrath, he’s tempted by sirens along the way, thinks through decisions-decisions in the face of difficult choices, and struggles, showcases his wits and strength, James-Bonding it or Vin-Dieseling it (Chuck Norris-ing it?) to get to point B.

He gets tools, he collects allies, he battles it out with enemies. Conflict is everything, right. His arc of growth compels us to read and retell his story; his incredible situation, and what he does with it, becomes an example or morality tale for what other folks could be capable of if hard-pressed in a situation like that — and so this surmounting, or standing out, makes him heroic. [Even if he is supported by the gods or fated to do something]. And… worthy goals!

Right from the get go, Homer has got us rooting for him, even before we meet him in first person. Because Telemachus cares, and Penelope cares, and Athena and Zeus… so if all these worthy mortals and deities care, we must have lots of empathy for Odysseus and want him to prevail, too! And that’s what makes him a hero — someone we (as reader/audience) look up to and care about.

In what ways does Odysseus potentially present a challenge to models of heroism?

Odysseus is not quite the stereotypical alpha male hero from the outset.  He cries like this helpless baby when Calypso has him in her cavern. (Weeping, not anger) I mean, if he’s so full of wit and strength why hasn’t he moved to action and dreamt up a thousand methods to get off Ogygia?  And then when Hermes brings instructions from Zeus to free him, Odysseus questions Calypso’s good intentions.

He doesn’t immediately latch onto the opportunity to sail home without one last tryst with her and getting her to help him with the sails of his ship, etc. If he is so heroic, with worthy goals of going home to his wife, why be unfaithful and why delay any longer? If he’s so crafty, why does he need anyone’s help in building a ship? He delays a lot, he is unfaithful, and somehow takes a long time coming home. He questions Ino’s good advice about abandoning ship when Poseidon clearly has it out for him, and then begs for Nausicaa and Arete’s help when he does land in Scheria.

There is some inconsistency in how he trusts some women, not others, even when caught in similar dire situations where he needs help. It is not necessarily rational, but perhaps emotional, based on his view of the gods.

Also, he got into this whole mess in the first place because his crew stole cattle from the Sun God. If he’s the true ancient greek hero, who’s just a cogwheel in the piece of the gods’ plans, he really should have known or managed his crew a little better, and not have angered the gods so terribly in the first place. But I guess every hero makes mistakes.

What about Telemachus?

Even less the alpha male, perhaps more beta or omega, Telemachus just requires a whole bunch of handholding all the way. He’s lounging around when everyone’s ransacking his home and waiting to pounce on his mom, dreaming of the day his dad comes home to save the day. It takes Athena in disguise many times to move him to action. He has no proven track record to inspire authority when he calls for assembly, instead, he is cajoled and pitied. He doesn’t seem to have his father’s good luck being surrounded by a harem of women (did this define a hero in Ancient Greece imagination?). And Nestor, Menelaus and Helen have to bring up the story of Orestes over and over before Telemachus gets it through his thick skull that action is required to do something about his situation. Other people have to tell him what to do! It’s like he’s not even aware of how bad it is, he’s just a frog in boiling water waiting for it to get so hot he dies before jumping out. And he requires a lot of divine intervention in order to get tools and friends necessary to proceed.

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The Art of Story

The Art of Story

Can you learn the art of storytelling? Or is it something that you’re just born with?

Bill Martell: There’s a million things you can learn about how to tell a story. What you can’t learn is how to tell it. That’s the thing that you’re either born with or you’re not born with. If you’re a good enough storyteller you can maybe bypass the not-having-the-amazing-amount-of-talent… uh, that’s why I’m here. It’s not ‘cause I’m immensely talented, it’s just because I figured out how to tell stories that people paid me money for.

Karl Iglesias: It’s really not about the art of story, it’s more about the craft of story… meaning that the art is what you have inside (that’s your talent). The craft you can learn. That’s the only thing that somebody can teach you. We can’t really tell you what to write but we can tell you how to write it in a way that’s appealing to an audience, that’s engaging to an audience, that makes an impact to an audience. One of my old-time favorite quotes by the writer Juan Luis Borges, who said “art is fire plus algebra”. The fire is what’s within you. The algebra is the craft, what can be taught.

Pamela Jaye Smith: Both of the gentlemen make very good points there, so I’m going to approach it from a slightly different angle, which is mythology – the basis of very good stories. Myths are the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world around us and within us.  As artists, you naturally tap up into that collective unconscious and start bringing it down (that’s the art part), and then what we can all work on is the craft of it. Presumably you are all here because you have tapped into that huge overshadowing world story (what’s often-called ‘the raincloud of knowable things’ ) and you bring it down and tell the same stories we’ve been telling each other for thousands of years but with your unique individual perspective.

Karl: One of the things that took me a long time to learn is why stories are so important in our lives. It all comes down to myth and Joseph Cambbell. If you study all the myths of the world you’ll realize that they all tell the same stories. And the reason for that is because stories have a bio-evolutionary purpose in our lives. We’re ingrained to really appreciate story to learn from story. Stories are like the owners’ manual to life. The reason we love stories is that there are owner’s manuals and how-to-manuals for everything, except for life. And stories kind of take that purpose, so when you go see a movie, unconsciously your body wants to learn something about life. About love, relationships, about how to solve problems.

Bill: Well, the thing with action films usually is… and again, this gets into the myth: life is a mess… in real life, our problems never get solved…they just go on forever. In an action movie, the problem gets solved because the protagonist steps up and does something that solves the problem and that becomes the lesson of outrunning the fireball and in stories like that. As people we need to step up and confront our fears and confront our problems and resolve them. The fantasy of a good action movie is, you leave it going, “Ahhh… all my problems are solved.” And then you go home, and flip through the bills, you know, and … all this stuff that’s not your problems solved.

Storyworld Panel

When we’re telling a story, we’re always told you should be thinking about theme…

Karl: Why you’re writing it! Why you’re writing a story.  Think about your stories and ask yourself, “why am I writing this?” Other than –  ‘Oh boy, I want to get an agent!’, ‘I want to make a million dollars!’, ‘I want to have my name in print!’ which are all kind of fake motivations, right? They’re like materialistic, ego, fame and all that stuff –  which is the last thing that’s going to happen to you when you’re a screenwriter. You know you’re not going to hob-nob with Tom Cruise and… no, ok, nevermind… that’s the business side of it. But the dream is that you’re going to be rich and famous. But your motivation is, should be, about wanting to tell a story and why. Like there is something within you that you want to communicate to the world, in other words, you want to teach to the world. There’s something you want to teach that you know the answer to, in a sense. The trick is how to do it so that it’s not in a didactic, preachy way…and that’s where the craft comes in: you want to make it entertaining.

Bill: What you want to do is you want to make the story theme, rather than have the character tell the theme.

Karl: Exactly. The story is the illustration of the theme, in a subtle way

Bill: Right. For me (and this sounds stupid because I write explosion movies)… is, everything always comes from a theme. When I write a script, I sit down and I go, OK. I come up with some crazy idea, and I go, ‘this is a cool idea… but what about it is me personally?; Because every story idea I came up with came from my brain, which means, it’s me! And no matter how crazy the idea is, in some place, there is some issue inside my brain that I’m trying to work out in that story idea… and once I figure out what that issue is, then I can use the story to explore the theme… because that’s really what it’s all about.

Karl: And that’s probably why he has 19 produced credits. Because his stories are thematically driven. In addition to just explosions. When you see that movies are just explosions, and are empty in just a sense, it’s like cereal. Your cereal that’s empty: it’s a sweet treat right now, but it’s devoid of any nutrients and then you’ve got your really whole grains and full of vitamins and stuff. It’s the same with stories: you’ve got your empty stories that you enjoy for like an hour and then you forget about it, and then you want the ones that become classics, you know? I don’t know about you, but the stuff I write, I want them to become classics. I want my movies to be spoken about in film school and in books and analyzed.

Pam: Back at the Mythic Challenges program, what we do is identify a couple of themes that address the 15 Global Challenges. Our pilot program went to a high school in Los Angeles and we chose along with the instructors 4 of the challenges: water, the technology gap, the rich-poor gap… and as a mythologist and using my Beyond the Hero’s Journey work… 2 of the kids decided between themselves which themes they wanted to use, and we had 6 plot points that for their short films they would touch upon about 4 of those 6 plot points.. then they would be tapping into that thematic pattern. And it would resonate with their audience. They were also working with sister schools in Afghanistan. So these kids chose their mythic themes, wrote their stories, filmed them, and you could see them online at Mythic Challenges.com. It will take you to it. The Millenium project is going to translate it into 27 different languages so it’s addressing what the gentlemen were saying about using theme to communicate messages to give cautionary tales, and sometimes just to entertain. One of my favorite ones that they did is barely 2 minutes long and some of the other films are 18 minutes, 11 minutes… but this one, in fact, I won’t tell you about it. I’ll just tell you to go see it. It’s 2 minutes long. There are 2 people in it. It’s shot against a brick wall. And it says so much about the problems of water in the world. And it’s done funny. It’s entertaining. So you can still get across a great message even if you’re blowing a lot of things up.

Think about theme in your subplots too; it’s not just in the A-story…

BillThat’s where the theme ends up surfacing is that most often too; the subplots are where the characters most often symbolize the theme.

So let’s talk about structure…a lot of people use Save the Cat, Beatsheets, Hero’s True Journeys… with Michael Hauge and Kris Folger…what about writing to formula?

Bill: There is no easy answer. Every script’s its own animal and the thing about it is, at least for me: every script is its own animal, and the basic concept of the 3 act structure, I use… there’s no page numbers involved with that… Except if I end up with like a 50-page Act I, there’s probably something wrong with it, you know? But other than that, there’s no page numbers. There’s no Act I ends halfway down page 27 because I think that’s bullshit.  It’s ‘What’s good for this script?’ And often, scripts work different ways. Some scripts are going to have a short Act 1, some scripts are going to have a longer Act 1… Some scripts are going to have a short Act 3 or longer Act 3… you can’t give a page number on any of that stuff. It’s whatever the story is.

Karl: I do actually tackle this all the time in my classes, because it’s always brought up. The fear that people have about structure. They think oh, structure is formula. And the reason they think that is they read that in books, and they think “oh, you should do this, you should do that”.

The way I look at it, I actually have an interesting way of showing it to the class… and the way I look at structure is…imagine you are looking at a human body, right? We’re all human bodies. The structure of the human being  is the skeleton. And if we took away, if we peeled away what you look like outside, we all look the same, in a sense. We all have similar skeletons, right? Well, the skeleton is the structure to a story. So, all stories have the same structure in a sense. But they…none of them look the same from the outside.  Human beings have the same skeleton but they don’ tlook the same. They all look unique.

The whole thing about page counts and 3-act structure and everything like that is similar to them telling you you have to build a human being and telling you that the bone of the arm has to be exactly 27 inches wrong.  And that’s ridiculous! Because everyone has different proportions.

Michael Hauge

However, what  the Greeks used to do, in terms of art, they tell you, well, the head should be about half the size of the torso, and the human being should have two arms and two legs. Well, that’s correct in principle and you should follow that because if you construct a human being that has 3 heads and 1 arm and the foot is over here and the leg is over there, you’re going to go, that’s a mutant, not a human being. And that’s the same with stories. You can go ahead and defy the 3-act structure, but it’s not going to look like a story.  It’s going to feel weird. Something’s going to feel weird. Just like if your first act is 50 pages, the audience is going to start feeling weird because it’s ingrained in our psyche, in a sense.

So what I prefer instead of page numbers is percentages. I think Michael Hauge talks about that… like your inciting incident should come in at around 10% of your story… so if you have a 300-page book, well, it should be around page 30. AROUND page 30, doesn’t mean you have to be exactly that. And like, you know, Save the Cat. Save the CatThe only thing that I really hated about the book was the fact that he would say, ‘it cannot come on page 4, it has to come on page 5…not on page 6’, and that was a little too weird. Well, you can’t. And now they’re starting to do it by the minute. He has a book where he tells you there’s a beat. Every beat of the story, like something startling should happen on … and he does it by the minute…like 120 beats in your story which…well, what do you do when you have a short, that’s like 2 minutes long? It doesn’t work.  So.  Look at it that way. Don’t be afraid of structure, because everything has to be structured.  This hotel, this room is structured. It has got 4 walls and doors. You can’t construct a house without walls.

Bill: For me it goes to Billy Wilder’s whole thing where Act 1 you get a cat up a tree, Act 2 you throw rocks at it, Act 3 you get the cat down from the tree. And for me, that’s it! You create, you introduce the conflict, escalate the conflict, resolve the conflict! And, that’s it.

Pam: I’d agree with that and add once again, a little bit of mythic perspective to it. Absolutely you need to have structure or you’ve got a mess. And I think any of us working with other writers helping to instill structure is to identify the theme, and then once you know what the theme is, you can start working on how are those themes best portrayed? In the mythic themes, I found that there are typically a dozen if not twenty plot points that you will find in each story, each well-told mythic story, on a particular theme… like Stealing Fire from Heaven. And you can look at those plot points and select for a feature story or for a novel, let’s say, at least 12 of them… unlike the kids projects where they just used 6. So go back and look at the old, old, stories that worked and identify, you know, analyze those old myths yourself and you can find those plot points, those beats, and say OK, if I get at least half of these,  I’ll be tapping into it. And as far as the cat up the tree, etc, one thing that I like to teach is the SDS: Sympathy – Danger – Salvation.  In order for us to want to go along on the journey with your protagonist, we have to have some kind of sympathy with them, for them. So you have to give us something about them that we can either relate to personally, or say, “Oh, I know somebody just like that”, or “I’ve always wanted to be like that”… to get that kind of identification. So the first step is sympathy. The next step is danger. What is the danger that the person is going to be put into? That now that we’re sympathetic to them, we’re going to care, we want to know… what’s going to happen? The explosions are fine!

Medea-Poster-Final

And then salvation. And the neat thing I like about the Greek tragedies, what they show us is: it doesn’t have to be a happy ending for there to be salvation. We know what it would look like even if the protagonist doesn’t get there.  So if you’re telling a cautionary tale, if you’re telling a tragedy, you still want to show us what salvation would look like. What surviving the explosion would look like even if your hero does not survive it.

Resolution doesn’t mean happy ending. Resolution means there’s some sort of end.

PamFor those stories that you want to be really getting across a message, sometimes it is better if there isn’t a salvation for your heroine.

KarlEndings are EVERYTHING. There’s a lot of tips and advice about starting with your story and work backwards. In other words, there are a lot of writers who do not start a story until they know the ending. And writers who once they know the ending, work backwards. When you think about it, your whole story is designed to get to that endingAnd if that ending is powerful, if it’s emotionally satisfying to the audience, then you win. I think Robert Town that said an audience will forgive you if you have a boring 5-minutes opening, but they’ll never you if you have a 1-minute, boring ending.  In other words, the ending is what you leave the theatre with. The ending is what, when you finish reading a script, you have that feeling and then you read the coverage you’ll read, either the reader is satisfied with the ending or not. It’s what people remember. Even if you have movies that are great movies, and then the ending sucks, that’s what people are going to talk about.

Bill: I’ve seen movies that sucked, and then they had this AMAZING ending! And you go, “That was a GREAT FILM!” and watch it later on and go… “That wasn’t a great film, that was just a great ending.”

The Sixth Sense

Karl: The Sixth Sense is a perfect example. I remember when that script was going around and it was in development, and people were RAVING about that script because it sold a lot of money and then it was in the wrong font and everything, and people were reading it going, “what’s with this script? I felt it was kind of boring, right?” And then the ending, and you go, “Oh my god!”, you know? And look at the power that it had.

One of the ways that endings are important too is the transformation over character.

KarlThe whole purpose of a story is to transform the character. In cautionary tales, the character didn’t learn the lesson and therefore suffered. And you show that in the ending. On the ones where you see the character transforming, the epiphany, when the character realizes what the lesson that he’s supposed to learn and now he’s armed with enough power to then deal with the ending and then confront the antagonist and …whatever.

Subtext is good, but there are THREE TIMES when somebody NEEDS to say EXACTLY WHAT IS GOING ON.

PamSomeone needs to say the thematic statement (what the movie is about), somebody needs to say the mission statement (what the protagonist is supposed to be doing) and then someone needs to say the lesson statement ( that typically is at the end).

Apocalypse Now

But for a wonderful example of a story that turns around that kind of structure, watch Apocalypse Now. And watch just the first 10-12 minutes of it, because it starts off with the lesson statement, and then the mission statement, and the thematic statement is the 3rd thing.  And I could quote it to you word for word, but I would suggest that you go and watch that.

Watch the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now and get to the point where Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) has just gotten his mission and turns and looks out the window as the helicopters start whacking. And it’s a brilliant setup for then what is a more linear film but you’ve been pulled into the story by knowing in the beginning what the lesson is, what the theme is, and what the mission is.

The closer to reality you can get your characters, when you put them into fictitious situations, the easier it will be to identify with them.

Karl: Probably the longest education from me in terms of storytelling  has been about character. If you want a story to really have an impact overall… if you want it to be a classic, if you want to be able to relate to it, then it starts with character because all stories are basically illustration of the character who transforms. Because they’re supposed to, right, the purpose of story is to teach you something. To teach you how to live and how to deal with it and how to problem-solve.

The only way for us to really absorb that is by jumping into the skin of the character. ..so the first thing that the reader wants to do, or the first thing that the audience wants to do is: they’re looking for a character to jump into as… like surrogates…that’s why I always advise, when you open a script, try to introduce/try to start with your main character because the reader is going to go, “is this the main character?” and if you start with an empty action scene, or like a waitress and she’s like a no-character, then the reader is going to be really frustrated going, “is this my character?” “oh no, that’s not my character”… or if you introduce ensembles… scripts that open, when you introduce like 20 characters,“hello?” it’s like, how’re you going to realize who your main character is?

Bill: Personal stakes and global stakes. In an action film it’s really important. The biggest problem with a lot of action movies is that they have the global stakes but no personal stakes. Personal stakes is what it’s all about. That’s why we care about the character, that’s why we want that character to succeed.

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Pam: Armageddon is a good example of that. Where Bruce Willis is saving the world but he also has connection with his daughter and he’s trying to save her.

Bill: But sometimes characters don’t fix the issue.They face the issue, but they don’t fix it. But the thing is, they faced it and but every single scene is going to be about that character dealing with that emotional conflict in one way or another.

Even if it’s outrunning a fireball..although that’s probably not the best example…so what you do, is you give characters in an action scene you give characters decisions to make in the action scene which feed that character decision they have to make.  

If a character is all about being selfish and their whole thing is they have to be selfless, then the action scene is they have to rescue somebody else instead of just only rescuing themselves. You create an emotional situation at every scene…even if it is an explosion.

Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-indiana-jones-1379832-922-692

Pam: Indiana Jones (the very first one) Raiders of the Lost Ark, I think is a good example of that. When we first meet Indian in the opening scenes, we learn that he’s afraid of snakes. So we learn that that’s his foible, his fear, his phobia, and then later on in the story he has to jump into an entire pit of snakes in order to save the day. So you got that book ending…

Bill: Not just the day. The woman he loves…

Pam: Save the world!

“Well, Indiana Jones doesn’t change..he doesn’t have a character flaw or whatever…”

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Karl: But the whole movie, when you really think about it, is an argument between secular and spiritual power. And at the beginning, when the agents come and talk about his missions and the arc of the covenant, Indiana Jones kind of scoffs at it. He scoffs at it, he goes, “Oh, that’s just mumbo-jumbo, it’s like spiritual stuff”. And at the end, when he’s tied up, and he tells… this is his moment of realization, when he has changed, really. Is when he tells his girlfriend “Close your eyes”. “Close your eyes”, because he knows now the power of this thing and that’s what saves him at the end. I consider that his transformation; his lesson of learning the power of the arc.

Writing Real-Life Dialogue

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Scene from Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino

with…

Karl Iglesias, Instructor, UCLA Writer’s Program
Steve Faber, Screenwriter (Wedding Crashers)
William Martell, Screenwriter (HBO, Showtime, USA Net, CineMax Originals), First Strike Productions
William Massa, Screenwriter (Silver Pictures, Dark Castle, Warner Brothers, Sony, Maverick, MGM, USA and Mandalay)
Anthony Grieco, Screenwriter, Story Specialist at The Writers Store

How important is dialogue in script?

Anthony:  Dialogue can be wonderful and funny, when you go through a script… and yet you’ll have scenes where actors say nothing in the scene. Unless you’re surrounded by a roomful of talented actors… whenever you can take words out of an actor’s mouth, do it. If you can show the character’s behavior instead, do it. Show, don’t tell. Most productions have no access to A-list actors. Have your character react a certain way, by default.

Steve:  No one speaks in real-life like they do in dialogue. Set-up, punch. Set-up, punch. Except for historical biography, there is no “real life dialogue”. There is a “hyper” or “meta” dialogue.

Karl:  Real-life dialogue.

How do you make hyper dialogue and make it sound natural?

Steve:  Depending on the genre, e.g. with horror, characters will scream.

Bill Massa:  The only thing when you’re reading is dialogue (script) telling the story therefore concept, story, characters, can be more important on a macro-level but dialogue jumps out at the reader.

Karl:  Least important – this doesn’t drive the story. What’s important is that readers read dialogue – trying to grasp the story through dialogue (vertically), and therefore, it’s not a conversation. It’s action. In a scene, there are only 2 ways a character can get something: either physically or verbally. Real dialogue is action.

Anthony:  Attitude towards the world. Flesh out character. Propels them to say things that are true to them.

How do you give dialogue distinctive character voices?

Bill:  Attitude of broad strokes: create conflict.

Steve:  Pick an actor at a given point in their career, and write in their voice. I pitched Wedding Crashers to 9 studios before I realized that Owen was not talking as fast as Vince… so I had to rewrite all of his lines.

Karl:  Contrast in scenes (emotional tempo: way characters feel in a scene). Favorite expressions, pet words.  In Lost: Jack Sawyer’s character nicknames every character.

Steve:  Moral lines in the sand. One character offending another character. That can manifest in great dialogue.

Bill:  Rhythmn. Cadence. The Coen brothers are masters at this.

Anthony:  Look at archetypes. Choose attitudes. Writer as an actor in the room. Drop into a place in your stomach that emotionally resonates with how a person is feeling in the scene. With each draft, find out all the characters’ ticks. Not all is lost if the components are not all working in the first draft.

Karl:  Every line has to have a reason. Not exposition (interrogation scene). Use dialogue to get something from someone.

Bill M:  In the Matrix, big chunks of the movie is exposition. Because we’re so intrigued, we don’t feel that this is just dumped on us. Very strong visuals. Exposition on the run. (Elements of danger). 

How do you make dialogue sound natural, again?

Karl:  Stilted dialogue is something that is grammatically correct, with full sentences, like an encyclopedia. Use contractions. If you want to say, “I want to go to the theatre tomorrow”, the trick is to contract it “I’m…” “I’ll”…. Have fragmented sentences. Cut words out.

Anthony:  Go through your script, and take out “well” and ‘look” from all the first words.

Karl:  It’s about trimming to the bone.

Steve:  I like characters who F*** up what they’re saying and then correct themselves. It’s a trick, it’s also part of human nature.

Anthony:  Have your character spit a question out in their mind, and then state the answer before asking the question out loud.

Bill M:  In real life, people interject. Running paragraphs don’t work in Casablanca – it’s all one line.

Karl:  Finger rule: it should be no thicker than a finger horizontally. Write tightly. (Subtext) Imply vs stating on the nose. E.g. first date questions – Quentin Tarantino, Ron Bass write good dialogue.

Beginning with the Pitch…8 steps to Pitch Perfect by Michael Hauge

Once I’d done OODLES of research, reading, and conceptualizing for The Black Tail, I decided to pitch it. Yup, to 90 agents in Hollywood at a Screenwriter’s World Conference October 2012 in the Kodak Theater. In Hollywood, I learned that the industry considers writing a given. Authors and screenwriters start backwards by pitching first to as many agents as they can — and they normally pitch a few ideas, so that they can sit back and write knowing that someone is either funding the effort, or that it needs reworking because it isn’t ready yet for commercialization. I can’t emphasize enough, the importance of pitching, if you’re really passionate about an idea. What better way to get feedback on moving forwards?

At Storyworld, I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity for a 30-minute one-on-one coaching with Michael Hauge, from Storymastery.com. To quote his bio from his official website, “Michael Hauge is a story and script consultant, author and lecturer who works with writers and filmmakers on their screenplays, novels, movies and television projects. He has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Kirsten Dunst, Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network…He is on the Board of Directors of the American Screenwriters Association and the Advisory Board for Scriptwriter Magazine in London.”

So, I was in the Ray Dolby Ballroom, teeming with budding screenwriters, agents, and producers… and Michael sat me down at a corner table and recorded me as I pitched my idea to him for 10 minutes. In under 20 minutes, he  then proceeded to give me feedback, which was exceedingly useful. I’m going to paraphrase: “stop saying you’re not a writer. Everyone is here to write, and writing is a serious business whether you’re making money doing it full time or whether you’re doing it on the side.” I sat up straight away, taking him seriously. He then went into the heart of my story. “Listen, this is clearly, obviously, a romance. You’ve got a great storyworld of monsters and themes from Greek mythology, but it is obviously a romance. And romance sells! It’s the largest selling genre in the world. Why wouldn’t you want to make this a bestselling romance? Why do you think it’s hard to write? You’ll have many resources at your fingertips with this genre…” and then he went on to put structure to my pitch, especially seeking out certain key elements that needed to be made explicit. (He wanted the 3 Labors I was putting my heroine through to be stated to the agents). When he was done, I went back and reshaped my whole pitch, and had something like the perfect back cover review for my book. This then served to structure the entire outlining process, that led to the process of building my novel scene by scene. Pitching is so important because the key elements that inform the structure of the story — plot, character, conflict —- has to be nailed in order to get it right.

Michael then went on to say that he’d be happy to work with me long-distance on the development of my story, and that is something I’d definitely recommend to those who have the time and resources. I am currently still learning a few tricks, through online courses at Writer’s Digest University, and still getting the first draft together. By the time I do, I’ll definitely work with Michael, because I see the potential in having my book also be a screenplay, and he’s definitely the go-to guy to get it right!!!

Without further ado, here are my notes from Michael Hauge’s “Screenwriter’s Pitch Perfect” lecture. He says that pitching is all about conveying an emotional experience.

8 Steps to the Process of Pitching

[PREP]

A. Review the story, identity and key elements of the story

  1. Who is the hero/protagonist of the story?
  2. What is the everyday life that character is living at the beginning of the story? (Before picture of the hero)
  3. Why will we empathize with this character? Why will the audience connect emotionally with this character? Eg. Avatar – we become Jake. Why we care (ways to develop empathy):
    1. We feel sorry for the person. Some undeserved misfortune.
    2. Character is in jeopardy. Someone who finds out she’s about to lose her job. Doesn’t have to be life-threatening.
    3. Make the hero likeable — tell us something in everyday life that shows he/she’s a kind, good-hearted, loving person
  4. What opportunity is presented to your hero at the 10% point in your script?
    1. e.g. Harry Potter learns he is the son of a wizard…
  5. New situation (character moves into~) something happens to create new desire in the person
  6. What is the hero’s outer motivation?
    1. Harry Potter has to find the Sorcerer’s Stone and stop it from falling into the hands of evil Lord Voldemort
    2. The outer motivation is the visible goal that takes the character to the end point of the movie (visible finish line that the character will cross)
  7. What makes that scene possible? What’s the conflict?
  8. What are the 2 antecedents for your movie? Example of movies in the same genre (similar tone), same audience, doesn’t have to be the same subject matter: Immortals, Clash of the Titans

B. You write. Take these elements, and compose that picture-perfect pitch

C. Rehearse. (Don’t read – can have note cards)

D. Research. Know as much as you can about the buyer.

  1. Go on Internet Movie DataBase and see what they produce, what’s in development

[PRESENTATION]

Create rapport  – identify commonality with the person…

  1. Acknowledge the person for something they or their company have done
  2. Don’t bullshit – why did you love the movie? “I saw it with my daughter and we had the best conversations about it…”
  3. They’re here – They took the time to come here (Thank them). “I’m here from Malaysia… it means a  lot to have the opportunity to talk to you…”

[REVEAL]

  1. Pitch
  2. Do not open with the title of the script or ____? Emotionally confusing
  3. Begin by telling the person about how you came up with this idea. HOW. Show originality. You want to draw the buyer into the pitch (get into it). If not listening 100%, it doesn’t matter. True, less nervous. The things about your story that generates passion and excitement…
    1. Good place to step in and link idea to the story; “I started thinking… WHAT IF”… (What movies you liked that led to this)
  4. Go into 8 elements
  5. Awkward moment #1: finish staying story… silent because buyer doesn’t know you’re finished.
    1. 1 short peek: summarize (title and log line) can be conveyed in 1 sentence)
  6. Silence again.
    1. Request feedback/next steps– “So, do you have any questions about my story or would you like me to send you a copy”?
  7. Q&A
    1. When someone asks a question, you must answer in 10 seconds. If they want to know more, they’ll ask.
    2. If someone was not interested in your pitch, 99% of the time, it had nothing to do with your pitch. No means their company is not interested in making that kind of movie right now (they already have stuff in development).
    3. “Got a couple of minutes left, can you give me some suggestions to sharpen my pitch?”
    4. If YES, see a copy – thank them, “great, I’ll get you a copy this week, I look forward to seeing what you have to say”

[DON’T]

  • Begin your pitch with a question
  • In your pitch, don’t tell the buyer how the story ends. END your pitch with a CLIFFHANGER. … that’s why CONFLICT was the last of those 8 items…
  • Don’t say if you want to know the ending, read the script
  • If you’re pitching a true story, don’t tell the person it’s a true story. Just pitch it. Only in the end – the title is this, 1-sentence summary, and can you believe it, it’s actually true (hook at the end)
  • Do not hype your story: this gets you nowhere – “this is really heartwarming, will appeal to children of all ages…”. Don’t tell them why or how good it will be – let them make the commercial conclusions of your story
  • Don’t apologize for nervousness. Don’t apologize during the pitch.
  • Don’t try to tell your whole story
  • Do not worry about getting rejected

Navigating Hollywood, strategies from Christopher Lockhart

Christopher Lockhart is a story editor, filmmaker, and educator at William Morris Endeavor (WME), the largest talent agency in Tinseltown. He has an active blog-site and runs a Facebook community called The Inside Pitch for a community of budding screenwriters.  Having read more than 30,000 screenplays, he essentially looks for scripts for actors.  His client list includes Denzel Washington, Christian Bale, Ben Affleck. At the Storyworld Conference in Hollywood, he shared some strategies for selling your script in Hollywood.

  • Externalize the internal: character’s development as he/she struggles through insurmountable obstacles, psychological growth, and emotionality needs to be externalized. Apply the Aristotelian arc of dramatic structure to the plot, extrapolating from the characters’ change process.

  • Develop strong villains: Villains need to be as strong as protagonists
  • Have lots of conflict: If your scripts lack conflict, you’re in the wrong business. “Go write poetry!”
  • Pitches start with simplicity… like a log line. Pitching anything in Hollywood is like a game of telephone – you get passed from Person 1 to Person 2 to Person 3. Therefore, simplicity is important. In Hollywood, meetings don’t last longer than 5 minutes. Prepare your log line and your pitch very well so that you don’t end up throwing up all over the person you’re talking to.
  • Have no mysteries in a log line: Of half the loglines sent to him, he understands the movie, but misses the conflict.
    • What is the movie about?
    • The log line is not a tagline. It is very specific.
    • Who is the protagonist?
    • What does he/she want?
    • What is in his/her way?
    • Phrase a log line so that the protagonist sounds active.
  • How to get a pitch in the door:
    • A pitch is never in the door (Do you realize just how many people want to write in Hollywood?)
    • You can differentiate yourself by being Top 10 on the Nicholl Fellowship for Screenwriters
    • Go for managers, write to them. Your job is to get at least 5 managers interested
    • With Hollywood script agents, 50% is about who you know and interrelationships…
    • Hollywood makes two to 300 movies a year. The sheer supply of scripts far outstrips demand
  • Understand structure
    • Trust the folks in Hollywood to know what works and what doesn’t work. A playwright is like a shipwright. A screenplay has architecture (like a ship, or a house).
    • You have to understand the structure of a screenplay, the juxtaposition of one scene to another, the ebb and flow of drama, and conflict.
    • A lot of novelists just don’t get the concept: you need to have setup and payoff down.
  • Bullet points:
    • Winnow all the details out and have bullet points in your pitch
    • What is the through-line that we can film?
    • What is going on in this movie?
  • The Exec has to want to read the script. You’re in the movie business, so pitch with Fade in and Fade out. Show them that you understand all about movie-making.
  • The Concept is your Angelina Jolie
    • It makes you stand out in the room
    • Your concept must be Cinematic
    • Dramatic
    • and Particularly interesting
    • (Movie-making is very expensive)
  • Actors are always looking for romantic comedies
  • Brand yourself, write in a genre you love

Getting started in Hollywood…

Every writer should get started in Hollywood. If you want to write a bestseller, go to Hollywood and pitch it to 90 agents at the Storyworld Conference at the Kodak Theatre. It’s the annual conference of the who’s who up and down the supply chain (from content producers to marketing agents and distributors) for Hollywood’s biggest storytelling industries: Books, Film, Television, Games, and Advertising.

They’ve been figuring out story worlds for almost a century. Scott Trowbridge, the Vice President of Walt Disney’s Imagineering, will tell you all about how Disney has had a private think tank since 1952 that does nothing but test stories on audiences to come up with great stories, bring characters to life, create places where audiences can live right next to characters, and create new ways of engaging the audience. Today, they have massive theme parks where they beta test stories by having unsuspecting visitors participate in role-playing games. They have massive computers that are programmed to write every possible permutation of story-plots and run statistics figuring out which ones will be the biggest hits. And they have all the resources in the world to scale up once they hit the jackpot. And by that, I’m sure you know, I mean take something and run it through every platform available.. the merchandise, theme park, publishing, online gaming, etc machines.

To figure out your story, you have to do it backwards, because the writing part is a given. If you can’t figure out a log line that works, and pitch it past a screaming Christopher Lockhart, who has read more than 30,000 screenplays and casts top billed actors from the biggest talent management agency in Hollywood (and is therefore very impatient), then you haven’t got a story to write. Of course, you’ll need some characters. And lots of conflict. “What do you mean you don’t have conflict? Get out of Hollywood! Go write poetry!”

Storytelling is serious business for the screenwriter’s guild in Hollywood. If anyone has plotting, dialogue, scenes, characters, when to put bombs into a movie, down to a scientific formula, it’s those guys. And guess what? it works. Writing a screenplay to them is no different from an architect designing the construction of a house. Plot devices literally provide all the structure they need to fill in and carry the story arc. With all the cogs and screws in place, they are very well-oiled machines. No wonder James Cameron wrote Avatar in 2 weeks flat.

If you’re into character driven plots, ask Karl Iglesias, UCLA Prof, who adapted Einstein’s e=mc2 formula into something much more to explain how Pixar creates characters we all love.  He can take two movies, like Finding Nemo, and Shark Tale, and reverse engineer the first five minutes for you to explain why one cartoon hooks you in but the other does not. He points out that when John Lasseter talks about the emotional core,he’s coming from USD 7B at the box office, 13 movies, 26 Oscars, 6 Best Animated Features. Given the investment that goes into each movie, Pixar spends 12 years developing its story-reel of characters!!!

Plot points in a screenplay have to be achieved in a discrete amount of time. It is so much more efficient to think of your book as a future screenplay and figure out scenes you really need to get your story across. Syd Field wrote THE bible — “Screenplay”. He’s THE screenwriting guru everyone in Hollywood is acquainted with; his textbook has become mandatory course reading for budding screenwriters at UCLA and USC film schools (et.al.). He advises people to reverse engineer scripts they like; identify 15 beats to every script. In the Hunger Games, every scene unfolds in a straight line…

I mean, wouldn’t it be cool to make storyboards of your entire novel, covering major plot points in key scenes, BEFORE writing out the entire novel?! You could technically take those storyboards and turn them into comic books too! Modularize and commercialize the book idea in a different platform. (Screenplay + comic book for kids + book = 3 marketable platforms!) Hollywood has several advanced software for this: Dramatica, Final Draft, Movie Magic, etc…

Image result for Dramatica

Authenticity is key to your story. And authenticity sells. Michael Hague, who sits on the Board of Directors of the American Screenwriter’s Association, works with Hollywood executives, producers, agents and managers to achieve commercially successful screenplays. He’s also the author of “Writing Screenplays That Sell”. He can literally sift through an impossible mess in a 30 minute conversation and guide you to the powerful, authentic material that drives the plot. “The hook is the dilemma at the end of the pitch that the character faces that seems impossible.”

Yes, the sheer amount of resources for writers in Hollywood is just phenomenal. Jeff Gomez, at Starlight Runner Entertainment (no intro needed), can take you through the 10 Commandments of 21st Century Blockbuster Franchise Production. Creating storyworlds for him is like branding a franchise… and this coming  from the man who’s creating the nation’s first transmedia incubator… he believes that this know-how should be open-source (read, free!)…. what a guy!

Hollywood takes storytelling seriously because they have serious clients. Pamela Jaye-Smith founded Mythworks, a company that helps organizations by “applying mythology for a more powerful reality”. She trademarked the term “Warrior Archetype” and advises the FBI and the US Army. Her production company wrote and designed the Command Briefing CD for the U.S. Army Signal Command.

 

[The Writer’s Guild Foundation library is located on 7000 West 3rd Street, Los Angeles –> go there, the librarian on duty is a walking encyclopedia…pick up a real screenplay in your hands, and read it. It took me 30 minutes to get through most of Witness, winner in 1984]