When writer’s block hits you, it hits you hard. For some, it happens often, for others rarely. But the impact is hard no matter the frequency. Staring at a blank page for hours on end, or looking into the computer screen hoping for inspiration to strike.
The only solution to combat writer’s block is hard work. There is no secret magic place where all the inspiration is waiting for someone to bring it to light. But, for a writer struggling with writer’s block, it seldom helps to hear advice like “You overcome writer’s block by writing.”
There are two techniques which together can help you ward off writer’s block and never to fear a blank page again. Enter Ernest Hemingway and Steven Johnson. Good old Papa and one of the best non-fiction science writers of our generation.
How screenwriter Shane Black and director Richard Donner created a landmark action movie of the 80s by injecting a bit of humanity into the story
Martin Riggs is crazy. Not just your usual kind of crazy. He’s CRAZY. “Jumping off the top of a building for fun” kind of crazy.
A story about a family man cop partnering up with a loose cannon ready for the mental asylum is not a unique story in itself. Mismatched partners is a movie trope as old as movies themselves, but Lethal Weapon have managed to stay relevant and watchable decades past its original premiere in 1987
One of the reasons why Lethal Weapon has captured our attention for so long is the amount of depth there is to the characters. Depth? In an action movie from the 80s? With Mel Gibson? Yes, depth.
We all been there. Daydreaming about having more hours in the day to do the stuff you really want to but can’t seem to find the time for. Check. Been there. Many times.
We look with envy at successful people. Somehow, they have unlocked a pool of unlimited time. That serial entrepreneur with all the successful start-ups in Silicon Valley. The visionary movie director from Hollywood churning out one masterpiece after another. Or the prolific and highly respected writer. How do they do it? What is their secret trick that made them so super productive?
“Waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.” (Mason Currey)
So, how do you go about writing a screenplay for a feature length movie? Or any longer story for that matter?
You do one thing: Outline. Outline. Outline…. and… outline.
I know that many big-time novelists and screenwriters don’t outline at all. The Coen brothers have said in numerous interviews that they never outline, but for the rest of us, I truly believe that outlining is the way to go.
The classic books on screenwriting by Syd Field, Michael Hauge, and Christopher Vogler all talk about the need for structure to your story. Here, I’ve tried to summarize their wisdom and mix it all together to come up with a fundamental structure for storytelling.
It has worked really well for me and has always kept my writing on track and moving forward.
Why is structure so important to a story?
Stories, like music, almost always follow some kind of rhythm or harmony. I’m no musician but I can clearly hear if a piece of music is out of tune.
Creativity — music, storytelling, paintings — need to follow some form of structure. There must be a plan to the madness. If there is no structure, everything is muddled together and becomes noise.
Stories that don’t follow a structure often feel rushed, or flat and boring or, as is most often the case, become hard to follow.
Frank Darabont changed the ending of Stephen King’s novella. King loved it. Then, why did it rub so many people the wrong way? It might even have killed Frank Darabont’s directing career.
It has been almost 10 years since the movie was released in cinemas, and the new TV series based on the same Stephen King novella is about to premiere, so it’s time to take a second look at the movie and try to make sense of it all.
The the movie can be summarized like this: After a violent storm hits a small town in Maine, the protagonist, David, his small son, Billy, and their neighbor drive into town to get supplies. While they are in town, a strange omnipresent mist descends on the small community supermarket, and everyone inside gets stranded. The movie then follows all the other townspeople caught in the supermarket and how everything starts to unravel as they lose the ability to get out or to communicate with the outside world.
When The Mist came out in 2007, it was tailgating the mainstream horror revival of the early to mid-00s. It looked on paper like a guaranteed hit. It was based on a novella by Stephen King and written for the screen and directed by Frank Darabont. Darabont had previously made movies of two other Stephen King stories, namely The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption (well, 3 movies if you include the short film The Woman in the Room). The Shawshank Redemption has since been hailed as the best movie ever made, according to the users of IMDb.com.
Everything seemed to point to another success.
But the ending is so bleak it sparked a clear polarization of the audience; either you liked the ending, or you hated it, and the vast majority of the general audience seemed to hate it. So, what happened? Two things stand out, the marketing around the movie and the structure of the movie.
I’m no marketing expert, but the overemphasis on this movie being made by “the team who made the best movie of all time” seems foolhardy. This movie is different from The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, and therein lies one problem with the movie. The marketing created a clear expectation in the audience of a similar movie experience, maybe with a bit more horror elements thrown in for good measure.
Frank Darabont’s roots in the horror genre were entirely skipped in the marketing. The two other movies are not accurate pointers of his work, neither before nor after. They are the odd ones out. He was, and still is, a writer/director with long and storied roots in the horror genre.
It’s easy to understand why so many members of the audience left the theater confused and bewildered and angry about the ending. This was not what they were expecting going into the cinema.
Playing against audience’s expectancy
If The Mist should be viewed as a mainstream suspenseful movie about what happens when society as we know it breaks down, then the movie must follow a known and established structure or else it veers away from being mainstream. And this does not seem to be Frank Darabont’s intentions.
King’s short story had David and Amanda having sex in the supermarket office during their time trapped there, a plot development that Darabont did not bring over to his film. The writer/director felt that such an act between two characters — each married to someone else — would not be well-accepted by a movie-going audience and would lead to them hating both characters. ‘I’m so not getting away with that on screen,’ he joked. ‘Not even trying.’
– Source: Grant Watson’s “As a species we’re fundamentally insane.”
This is a very interesting statement by Darabont. He was aware of what the audience would accept in terms of character development but still decided on the bleak ending, even insisting on it, as the movie studio forced him to cut the movie’s budget in half if he didn’t change the ending. He opted to keep the ending and made the movie for half the original budget.
Mainstream stories must follow certain rules. Similar to music having rhythm. If not the listener — no matter if they are musically trained or tone-deaf — will call out the music as out of tune or playing in disharmony.
One of the best known and, perhaps, most adopted ways of constructing stories in mainstream movies is The Hero’s Journey. Almost all (western) movies follow the three-act structure, with a clearly defined start, middle and end, wherein the middle (the second act) takes up about half the entire movie, and the first and third act bookending the middle takes up a fourth each.
1)Things start out in the normal world (before the mist descends on the town), and something happens, prompting the protagonist to go on a quest in the special world.
2) Here, the hero will find friends and foes, meet tasks and challenges. The 2nd act, the middle part of the movie, takes place in the special world, where nothing is as it seems, and the protagonist is constantly tested to determine his or her perseverance. It’s only when the hero has proven his or her worth they are shown the path back to the normal world.
3) The hero returns as the savior bringing back the sword to slay the dragon or the magic drink to heal the dying king.
Three well-defined acts and some markers along the way provide direction for the audience. It’s been the staple of almost all mainstream stories for centuries.
“Crash to black”
And this is where The Mist deviates from The Hero’s Journey. The protagonist David fails the final challenge. He does return to his normal world — by getting out of the supermarket — but in the process, he loses everything, his wife, his son, and everyone he cared for. He left the special world with nothing, and he doesn’t change as a person. He hasn’t learned anything or gained knowledge he didn’t have before. That’s about as bleak as it can be.
Below is the last two pages of the screenplay. And whereas the novella by Stephen King ended with an ambivalent ending with the survivors sitting in the car contemplating their options, Frank Darabont continued the story for a few minutes.
“CRASH TO BLACK” indeed.
By adding a few more minutes to the ending and making it as bleak as this, Frank Darabont punched the audience in the gut. Hard.
“In a story, what the reader feels is driven by what the protagonist feels. Story is visceral. We climb inside the protagonist’s skin and become sensate, feeling what he feels. Otherwise we have no port of entry, no point of view through which to see, evaluate, and experience the world the author has plunked us into.”
– Lisa Cron: Wired for Story
The protagonist is our entry into the universe of the movie. For good and bad, it’s how we view the world of the story. You have — as a storyteller — a great responsibility towards the audience.
Watch the entirety of the last 8 minutes of The Mist below.
Christopher Vogler writes in his seminal work on The Hero’s Journey and screenwriting “The Writer’s Journey”:
“The Hero’s Journey is a skeletal framework that should be fleshed out with the details and surprises of the individual story. The structure should not call attention to itself, nor should it be followed precisely. The order of the stages given here is one of many possible variations. The stages can be deleted, added to, and drastically shuffled without losing any of their power.” (Vogler, p. 19)
The problem — story structure wise — with The Mist is it calls attention to itself. If you, as a storyteller, rip out the audience’s hearts during the movie, you have to give it back to them at the end. If you don’t follow the structure, to some extent, you give the audience a bad taste in their mouth.
The movie could also have ended with the massive monster they meet on the highway simply crushing the car underfoot, killing everyone inside. SPLAT! End of story. And that would have left the audience just as bewildered because the story skips of elements of The Hero’s Journey.
When you, as a filmmaker play on the expectations of the audience, you have to deliver in a certain way. Failing to do so will leave the audience disliking the story. The audience feels tricked.
In The Mist, there is no resolution to the story. This is why, at the premiere, so many people reported watching the audience leave the theater in complete silence. They were in shock; they just watching a father shoot his own son only to be rescued minutes later. But they were also silent because they were trying to figure out why the movie felt so wrong. There was something missing from the story, or something felt off kilter.
I perfectly understand — and respect — why many liked the ending, precisely for its hard bleakness. It was very different. But, if you are trying to create a universally understandable narrative for the general audience, you have to play along with some expectations from the audience. Expectations which are rooted in a long storytelling tradition.
If not, you run the chance of undoing the entire narrative and making your story a one-trick pony. Once you’ve seen the movie, there is little point in seeing it again, because the trick it plays on the audience only works the first time around.
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Looking into the dualistic structure of the narrative
“Hell or High Water” (2016) is at face value a classical tale of cops and robbers, or perhaps even a modern western as it has been hailed by many. It’s a story about what is right and what is wrong. Lawmen and outlaws. You don’t have to watch the movie for long before you notice that everything in the movie is 2-sided. There is two of everything. There is a counterpart for everything. Two brothers- one the criminal, one the law-abiding citizen. Two Texas Rangers- one white and one Native American.
All the main elements are opposites and are pulling in different directions. By doing so, the scenes in the movie have an inbuilt dynamic that creates a very interesting and well-paced narrative.
Word of warning: the rest of this article pretty much spoils the entire movie — so if you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest you stop reading right here and return when you have watched it.
Cross-posted from Medium: https://medium.com/@simonlundlarsen/hell-or-high-water-always-two-there-are-b8f31c548004
Looking into how one cleverly constructed long take perfectly illustrates Brian De Palma’s extraordinary craftsmanship and his mastery of the visual language.
Your body instinctually moves around when playing a video racing game. You can’t help it. You are leaning left and right, moving with the virtual car in the game.
And almost everyone has tried to lean forward in their cars to get a better look at a road sign, while speeding past on the highway. It makes little sense to the rational mind to lean forward a few inches to get a better glance at a sign, while moving forward a high speed. But we do it anyway.
Why? Because certain visual stimuli make us do it. It’s ingrained in us, as humans. The individual senses are tricked into overruling each other; even though we know we are sitting on our couch playing a racing game, the body leans, because our eyes tell us the car is moving. It’s pure muscle memory.
Director Brian De Palma is a masterful visual storyteller. He knows all the tricks in the book of visual medium, and his gangster opus “Carlito’s Way” from 1993 is a perfect example of this.
The Visual Language
One aspect where “Carlito’s Way” and Brian De Palma’s work excels is in the visual language. From fade in, he is telling us what kind of movie this will be.
He is inviting us into the realm of the story. The entire story you are about to watch is told directly by Carlito (brilliantly played by Al Pacino), laying on the stretcher being rushed to the hospital.
“[..] the first job of any good story is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is creating such a compelling illusion of reality.”
— “Wired for Story” by Lisa Cron
Lost but not forgotten
“I can’t make a better picture than this”
— Brian De Palma (from the “De Palma” documentary)
Brian De Palma is not credited enough for his skill as a filmmaker. No matter if you regard him as one of the most significant auteurs of the 1970s to 1990s or you see him as a master craftsman capable of surrounding himself with top talent, you have to respect the work that carries his name.
How the simple and to-the-point character introduction in “Die Hard” elevated it from a mere standard action flick to an all-time classic.
Introducing characters in a story is difficult. As a storyteller, you have to introduce the characters to the audience in a way that they can relate to them. Even unlikeable characters.
We all have our favorite and memorable characters from the annals of film history. Characters that in some form or another made a lasting impression on us. Some of the characters made a grand entrance and others grew on you the more you got to know them.
This article focuses on the introductions. The scene or sequences where the characters were introduced to the audience in such a way that you instantly knew “this is going to be a good story.”
Since its premiere in 1988, “Die Hard” has become “The Perfect Christmas Movie”. It is arguably one of the best action movies of all time, but where it really excels is in the character introductions. So it’s only fitting that in the spirit of the holidays, we look at Die Hard as an example of good introductions of characters.
Meet John McClane
The first two minutes of Die Hard accomplishes something that very few movies do. It introduces the main hero and at the same time carefully drops some very important expositional details about him. It even manages to set up a sequence for later in the movie.
It’s a great opening scene, and it only lasts two pages in the screenplay and two minutes of screen time. It is as economical and to the point as it can get.
Read the pages from the screenplay below and notice how the scene is written. Notice how nothing is explored for too long. Almost everything is mentioned in passing. But notice that after it, you have a very good understanding of who John McClane is and where he’s going.
There you have it. In less than two pages of screenplay, the screenwriter successfully managed to cram a ton of information about John McClane into the story. And I bet you didn’t even notice it the first time you saw the movie. But in just two minutes, we gathered a lot of information about John McClane:
He is afraid of flying
He is a father, and he’s bringing a teddy bear for one of his kids
He is married (or as least not actively looking for women at the moment)
He is good looking
He is a policeman from New York with years of street experience
He wears a gun on the plane (this was 1988)
He has a sense of humor (“Trust me I’ve been doing it for eleven”)
They could have introduced McClane in a hundred other ways. They could have shown him in his natural milieu in New York as an ass kicking street cop kicking ass and taking names. They could have shown him as a tough guy — “You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”. But they did not. They showed him as a vulnerable husband that’s scared of flying and comes to visit his estranged family.
That is a novel way of introducing your main character in an action movie.
Imagine for a moment what a different story Die Hard would have been if they had opted to introduce John McClane as some Dirty Harry clone. Even if the rest of the movie had remained unchanged, framing McClane like this would have completely shifted our feelings for him and I dare to claim it would have made the story far less interesting.
And the majority of the introduction wasn’t even about McClane and who he is. It was mostly about his fear of flying and the salesman sitting next to him giving him advice on how to handle jet lag. This conversation with the salesman might seem strange or even off-beat funny at first, but it seamlessly sets up why McClane later in the movie is running around in the offices of Nakatomi Plaza barefoot.
Now watch how the entire scene made it into the movie. There are a few minor changes between the screenplay and what ended up on the screen, but the setup, structure, and dialogue are virtually unchanged.
All this, in just two minutes.
Strong Independent Female Lead
John McClane’s wife, Holly, is introduced in a similar economical and lean fashion. She is introduced in a scene right after the previous scene with John McClane landing in LAX. This scene is a bit longer, spanning just over three pages.
When you read through Holly’s introduction, notice how feminine and motherly she is portrayed while at the same time, she’s strong and independent. There is no man here to tell her what to do and what not to do.
This is not just a female character in an action movie put in as fancy window dressing.
And again, see how the scene is extremely skillfully acted and somewhat downplayed on the screen by actress Bonnie Bedelia.
It is understandable that you as a storyteller and filmmaker want to dazzle your audience and get as fast as possible to the “fun parts” and the more exciting action sequences of your movie, but if the foundation isn’t laid down properly, the audience won’t care one bit about the character. They will have nothing invested in the story. By building it up like this, tension and a sense of urgency are added to the story.
When Shit Hit The Fan
So, when Hans Gruber and his gang of terrorists/bank robbers enter the story and the “action parts” of the action movie start, then you are 100% onboard as to why different characters act like they do — what their motivation is. You know from very subtle clues what their dreams and fears are and what drives them.
Everyone’s’ motivations are as clear as day. John to flew to LA to win back his estranged wife and spend time with his kids. Holly wants her husband to change. To settle down, and maybe follow her to LA. She still loves him deeply.
Hans Gruber is motivated by the age-old motivation of them all; the almighty dollar.
Nothing that happens later in the movie is “out of character” for any of these characters.
The introductions and setting up of internal emotions and external motivations is so phenomenally well made in Die Hard. It is done so subtle that you’re not even aware of the incredible amount of background information that’s been provided about the various characters. You might think that their motivations are simple, but remember that simplicity is not a very simple thing.
John McClane is the perfect action hero leading character. Not because he’s a cop and therefore by default saves the day. Being a cop is just his skill set. He’s the perfect hero because we believe in his drive and his motivation. He truly loves his wife.
Sidenote: The Perfect Villain
It’s hard to fathom that the role of Hans Gruber was Alan Rickman’s motion picture debut. He had extensive theater pedigrees before venturing to Hollywood, but with the role as Hans Gruber, Alan Rickman perfected the action movie villain. Cool, calculated and stealing the scenes just as much as the charming Bruce Willis.
The writers of Die Hard also showed Gruber as a proper villain. In his mind, he is the hero of the story and McClane is the antagonist trying to foil a perfectly orchestrated bank robbery against an evil money scheming mega corp.
It’s all the sadder that he left us all too soon this year — but we have the many, many movies, he perfected with his presence to look back at.
RIP Alan Rickman (1946–2016).
“Everybody in Hollywood wants to be the second person to do something the first time.” (Steven E. De Souza, screenwriter of Die Hard)
Die Hard became the de facto action movie template that all other action movies were to be measured against. And in the time-honored tradition in Hollywood of “copy and repeat” — in the years since, we have seen movies like “Die Hard on a Bus” (Speed), “Die Hard on a Boat” (Under Siege), “Die Hard in a Hockey Arena” (Sudden Death) and “Die Hard with the US President” (Air Force One). But none of them has captured the pure essence of the first Die Hard movie, not even the Die Hard sequels themselves.
It is so rare today that we get to see action or adventure movies like Die Hard where the craftsmanship is so prevalent. If we have to believe in a one-man-army out to rescue us all from the imminent doom and destruction, it has to be someone who has flaws and vices and by no means is a super-human. Because none of us are, and in movies like these, we don’t want our heroes to be.
Making a lasting impression on others is hard, and the first impressions last. But if you as a storyteller do it with economy and elegance like Die Hard, the audience will thank you for it.
And then you have made a lasting impression with your story.
Simon Lund Larsen works as a Product Manager at a large toy maker in Denmark in the daytime and writes short stories, screenplays and posts like these in his spare time. You can find him here on Medium as Simon Lund Larsen or on Twitter with the same handle @SimonLundLarsen.
The last few days I’ve been playing a lot of God of War II and thoroughly enjoying every last moment of it. That is, up until now. I’ve just gotten to some of the last levels I presume as the story arc is nearing its end (the Phoenix Champers) and the difficulty have just risen so steeply in the last few levels that the game is becoming more frustrating than fun to play.
Let me explain. In the last few years I’ve steadily gone from being a hard-core gamer to a somewhat ex-core gamer due to high level of time consuming elements of my life (such as university studies, wife and son). And that has some clear effects on my timing and aiming skills. These skills only stay good if honed continuously, and I simply don’t have the time for that.
And in the case of God of War II many of the later sequences of the game requires just these skills. As I’ve become an ex-core gamer I tend to play on the easy setting just so that I have time to complete the game without using too much time on it and still see the parts of the game that everyone is talking about. The problem is just that the geometry in the level design don’t scale. The difficulty of making a jump in a 3D environment is just as hard on extreme difficulty as it is on easy.
And that’s no good.
When games moved into 3D, however, the jumping puzzle became a more difficult task. In addition to requiring the player to control their jumps in an extra dimension, the problem of viewpoint reared its ugly head. Games with fixed cameras sometimes made it quite difficult for the players to see where they were landing, while manual control added another control to juggle. #
I would really like to see that if I choose to play on easy setting that the jumping and timing puzzles gets scaled accordingly, else I’ll end up in the position I’m at with God of War II currently; I’ll just stop playing and all the hard work and godly greatness being purred into the levels to come will forever be lost on me.
Discussing participatory culture and player rights in virtual worlds By Simon Larsen
Supervisor: T. L. Taylor
Course: Computer Games Culture – F2005
IT-University of Copenhagen
Me, myself and my avatar
What problems lies in the fact that commercial companies effectively owns content created by players of virtual worlds?
The common statement you hear when discussing rights of players in virtual worlds is; “it’s just a game”. Yes and no, but there is much more to it. Scott McCloud writes in his book “Understanding Comics” (1993) about the interaction with inanimate objects;
When driving, for example, we experience much more than our five senses report. The whole car ” not just the parts we can see, feel and hear “is very much on your minds at all times. The vehicle becomes an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car.” (p. 38)
This notion of inanimate objects being an extension of our identity can be translate directly to virtual worlds. We and the avatar we control in the game are one and the same. That is why people spend so much time in the games and feels very much attached to their avatar and the actions done by and to them. The avatar is another version of them.
In online multiplayer games without persistence, the skill of my avatar and the skill of me, as a player, are directly linked together. If the game company Valve took the (however unlikely) decision to shut down all Counter-Strike servers worldwide, I could just take my FPS [4. FPS: First Person Shooters. An action-oriented genre of games, currently dominated by games such as Counter-Strike, Half-Life 2, DOOM III and Far Cry. ] skills and start playing Quake III or Unreal Tournament. With persistent game worlds that is much more difficult. The skills I have as a player only count for a part of the abilities of my avatar, the rest is gained from leveling in the game. If I was to change to another game, I had to start all over from scratch.
Ceci n’est pas une pipe
The counter-argument to this statement is – again “it’s just a game”. No actions in the game have real-life consequences. Still people spend months, even years, in some of these games, building social networks and honing their reputations by their actions (Taylor, 2002).
Who Watches the Watchmen?
“All title, ownership rights and intellectual property rights in and to World of Warcraft (including but not limited to any user Accounts, titles, computer code, themes, objects, characters, character names, stories, dialogue, catch phrases, locations, concepts, [..], transcripts of the chat rooms, member profile information, [..]) are owned by Blizzard Entertainment or its licensors.” (Section §13. Ownership).
In short, everything related to the “universe” of Warcraft is owned by Blizzard. Any story that you as a player creates either in or outside of the game, through role-playing or otherwise is owned by Blizzard. It is, presumably, your labor of love, but you have to rights to it.
Furthermore, they state that: “You may not do anything that Blizzard Entertainment considers contrary to the ‘essence’ of World of Warcraft” (Section §3. World of Warcraft Code of Conduct, C.v). Even the quotation marks around “essence” are there, but the term is never defined clearer than that.
The power of many
The value these players give to the overall game experience is higher than that of the game itself. Reed’s law [5. Reed’s Law states that a value of a social network is directly connected with the number of participants. 2N − N − 1, where n is the number of participants in the network, e.g. a network of 5 participants would have the value of 26, while a network of 10 would have a value of 1013. The value of the network scale exponentially with more participants (Wikipedia). ] certainly applies to these games, where the number of participants in the network is directly connected with the value of the network. These games are nothing without the players [6. As of writing this players of World of Warcraft are leaving the game by the numbers and canceling their accounts because of their dislike of a new PvP system that has been implemented].
Question left unanswered
“MUD players are people. They don’t stop being people when they log on. Therefore, they deserve to be treated like people. This means they have the rights of people.” (Koster, 2000)
Many questions still linger unanswered. This is a topic of continuously heated debate, and each side of the table has still to come up with the argument that would end the discussion.
If the balance of power over intellectual property and the player rights shifted more in the direction of the players (customers), would this unleash a barrage of legal issues that would eventually end the MMORPGs, as we know them today? Is it then best to leave the balance in its status quo?
Would this damage the game playing experience? Would it destroy the play, as in? I play a game to escape real life, why bring real life in here? Is this the Pandora’s Box of virtual Worlds?
Could the game companies gain more from loosening the grip on the rights, instead of controlling them rigorously? As Henry Jenkins writes (2002), some game companies already do and seem to be gaining from it.
All links checked as of April 2005. Not all are referenced directly in the text.