The following is part of a series of articles that record the process as I develop a horror film titled Wrath. These are not meant to be treated as educational documents but rather a glimpse into the creative process of a single filmmaker. Every writer, every filmmaker has their own process.
Today I start writing and I divulge a bit more about my writing techniques.
Part Six -The first Ten Pages.
I don’t believe in the extreme pacing of modern film. Forcing along narrative beats to move faster than they should come naturally leads to the plot taking the reigns and characters being lost in the mix. I believe stories should move at their own pace. A film with a “slow start” can still be so well paced that half the film flies by without noticing.
To me, I see it as a matter of justifying my story. Throwing contrivance after contrivance to create artificial drama right out of the gate only serves to exhaust the audience. That said, some stories work by jumping right into action. But really, what matters is that choosing the right opening for your story sets up the inevitable conflict that is to come.
That’s why the first ten pages are some of the most important parts of your script. Typically we like the inciting incident, or the event that will push the plot into full gear to start around pages 12 to 15. The preceding ten pages are given to the establishing character and world. These ten minutes are kind of like a no man’s land. A place where you can run free and do what you want but be careful to not step on a landmine and blow yourself up before the marathon begins.
I like using the ten pages to focus on character and their relation to the setting. This goes beyond just describing establishing shots and characters being sad or happy. Spaces and places and people all have symbiotic relationships to one another. We feed off of and are fed on by the places we inhabit, informing our decision-making and desires.
Developing this psychosocial relationship between a character and a space is done by showing how a space affects a character. Take the oppressive household Sam lives in the suburbs of Brennan Fields. Winding maze-like urban planning designed to give people an artificial sense of old world naturalism instead turns the suburbs into a tense labyrinth of identical houses with surface level differences in architectural design. Outward signs of individuality give way to crushing homogeneity. This affects the residents’ mode of thinking. Having every house the same, outward appearances become the method of defining oneself as separate from other families. Those surface level elements become cornerstones of public identity, which lead to lifestyle competitions. Now, if you have a character, like Sam, that isn’t inclined but is emotionally harangued into following these patterns of social interaction and afraid to not conform, this place is hell. So how do you visually establish an especially oppressive space in a world where all the settings are technically the same?
By using the surface signifiers to bear down on a character. Sam is by all accounts a free wheeling hard ass character emotionally manipulated into playing the role of pretty housewife by a gaslighting husband. So her means of defiance have been tamped down by stripping visual identifiers away from her. So when we meet her, she is desperately trying to blot out a tiny wine stain in a house that is painted entirely in shades of white. No extreme colours, no unique art — her house is sterile and completely bearing down on her psyche. This provides a basis and a natural segue into her other means of escape, which is substance abuse (this is based on real research, not just lurid soap opera dramatics. Drug abuse by adults and youth in rural and suburban areas is higher than what people initially assume). By establishing space and character within it we create the dramatic opportunities to flow outward naturally from this initial revealing, providing context for our Character’s behaviour and actions and the conflicts that will arise later.
Part Seven – Scene Design
The following is a series of story development notes I have when I start writing.
NOTE: The majority of the following questions can be asked about every level of what I’m writing, from the smallest scene to an overall arc or spine of the film. They are taken from several sources. A lot of Lajos Egri, some John Truby, a bit of Mckee.
QUESTIONS ABOUT STRUCTURE
- What is the THESIS/Starting State for the Main Character? What do they believe to be true?
- What is the INCITING INCIDENT for the Scene?
- ANTITHESIS: How does this Inciting Incident differ with the main character’s assumptions at the beginning of the scene?
- What CONFLICT arises from this difference between the character’s assumption and reality?
- What are the moment-to-moment BEATS (a progressive series of unavoidable moments and reactions) that the conflict generates that lead to the climax?
- CLIMAX: How does the Antithesis and Conflict force the character to a TURNING POINT/DILEMMA where they have to CHANGE and make a DECISION based on the new insight gained in the conflict.
- RESOLUTION/SYNTHESIS: How is this character different from the beginning of the scene and how will their choice affect the next scene.
Questions specifically for scenes/sequences:
- How does this feed the larger structure of the act? Of the structure of the whole film?
- How does this feed into the penultimate climax at the end of the movie?
Note: In a Feature, a scene is usually a small change in character that feeds a medium revelation in a sequence that culminates a major reversal or change in the climax of an act. In shorter works, this has to be compressed down.
The escalating structure is largely believed to be as follows: BEAT >> SCENE >> SEQUENCE >> ACT >> FILM STRUCTURE
Each part continuously builds to the next, with breathing room and pacing to the CLIMAX of the whole film, which must feel inevitable and inescapable by the time we reach it.
QUESTIONS ABOUT CONFLICT
- What is the Character’s Internal Conflict? Their emotions and thoughts in the scene.
- What are the Character’s immediate External Conflicts? Who are they directly against/who is the antagonist in this scene?
- What are the Character’s Social Conflicts? In what way are they questioning the status quo of the world they live in? How are they different from everyone else?
- How does the character’s actions over the course of the scene and its climax change their relationship to each level of conflict?
QUESTIONS ABOUT CHARACTER
- Where is your Character at in this scene, how do previous scenes and or backstory inform them up to this point?
- What are their personal values about life in general?
- What do they believe to be true about their surroundings in the scene? What do they believe to be true about the world and the story up to that point?
- How or in what way are they wrong?
- What are they forced to do/realize when reality doesn’t match up with their assumptions?
- How does this change them?
- How does it inform their next decision?
- What is their next decision?
- How does this decision affect the next scene? How does it build?
And most important of all…
WHAT DO THEY WANT?
WHAT WILL THEY DO TO GET IT?
WHAT HAPPENS IF THEY FAIL?
Note: The questions should be answered at varying levels of detail for the protagonist and all key characters in the film, and they should always have an answer. If at any time your character is not changing, moving or not making a decision, they are not interesting. These do not have to be big things, or even immediately noticeable to the audience, but they have to be clear and obvious to you. If the answer to any of these questions is NO/NOTHING, the story doesn’t move forward and your movie is over for that character.
QUESTIONS ABOUT ANTAGONISTS
- How is the world against the character? Why does it resist them?
- What are the values of the world, how do they conflict with the character’s personal values?
- How does the world and its values inform the ANTAGONISTS of the Scene/Act/Movie?
Now more specifically…
- WHO ARE THE ANTAGONISTS IN YOUR SCENE? Internal, External, existential? What/Who are they? Are they bad guys or just an opposing force?
- ARE THEY ANTAGONISTS OF THE ENTIRE FILM, THE ACT, OR JUST THE SCENE? How is their power dynamic structured (for example: henchman, mid level boss or villain)?
- WHAT DO THEY WANT? WHAT IS THEIR LARGER DRIVE OR GOAL?
- WHAT WILL THEY DO TO GET IT?
- WHAT HAPPENS IF THEY FAIL?
- Are they in the scene? If not, are they observing the scene, unobserved by the protagonist? Is the audience aware of this observation?
- How do their WANTS conflict with the Character’s wants?
- How do they act against/respond to the Character? What do they do to oppose them?
- How does the Character’s actions change them or force them to act?
- How does this inform their actions going into the next scene? How does this build?
Note: Like regular characters, antagonists are just as developed on the same level of detail. Often more so. Characters become more interesting in contrast to your antagonists. So to make them more compelling makes your Protagonists more interesting by proxy. If they are just stand-ins to get in the way of the character’s continual winning, then neither the character nor the antagonist are interesting. Drama and conflict, on both sides, are defined by constant struggling against each other, winning and losing at different scales until one is destroyed or defeated. Neither Protagonists nor Antagonists are capable of backing away from conflict; they are drawn inevitably to it. There is no going back for either of them. And, most importantly, nobody sees himself or herself as the bad guy.
STORY DEVELOPMENT NOTEBOOKS
People have this idea that the generation of narrative is simply the arrangement of structured scenes. The truth is that it’s far more than that. We get ideas. For stories. For scenes. For images. These just pop in our head and our laser focus on the end goal of planning these stories out can result in having all these little things that can enrich your story when you finally get to writing it will be lost.
This is why I suggest keeping a development notebook, unlined and small, on you all throughout the development process. Fill it with all the character work and notes you want but also use it to record ideas or images you have, no matter how inane or seemingly trivial it is.
Part Eight – Further notes on structuring
I plan my stories out in two methods. Story Wheels and Step outlines. Story wheels are not related to the hero’s journey. They are just ways of organizing step outlines to help you visually organize beats in a way that help you create parallels and suss out pacing issues early in advance. Each line/minute mark indicates a story beat/scene you want to include in your initial planning. Every bolded line, or hour mark, can signify a ten page marker to keep track of story progress. You write on the inside of the wheel. The space at the bottom of the page is reserved for additional notes. By looking at your story on the wheel, you can make structural choices to create parallel or echoing beats. The shape doesn’t necessarily mean you are making a cyclical or lyrical narrative but the shape allows you think about a story more than just a series of information but a contained organism in which you control the lifecycle of. By seeing it all laid out, you can better gauge the entire piece as a series of causal events that build over time to climax and see where sections of your plot might be thread bare or over stuffed and how you may edit or rearrange these narrative events in order to create a better paced story.
I made a wheel you can download and print if you want to use it.
Writing, for me at least, is a treacherous game of juggling on a high wire. You need to balance the importance of macro and micro storytelling while walking a fine line in your narrative structuring. We can organize and restructure and re-balance the step outlines of our stories but we can’t always deal with it from a distance like that. So eventually we have to put down our pens and start typing. That’s when the story starts for us and for our characters. We need to make the best opening we can because it’s what the characters deserve and what we deserve as writers. We set up worlds and conflicts and stories in those first ten pages and we owe it to ourselves and our subjects to start a story honestly, at its own pace and in a way that interests us as filmmakers instead of just listening to advice that may force contrivance and plotty requirements upon your characters. And that’s what I think about when I start the first ten pages of my script.
Next Week: More Writing! Also the merits of distraction and thinking/ dreaming in images.