Tuesday, 15 November 2016

SCREENWRITING FUNDAMENTALS #12 START LATE - FINISH EARLY

This is a mistake that pops up time and time again.

I've written about START LATE, FINISH EARLY before, it's something that seems to rear its ugly head far too often, so here's a post just focusing on the concept of START LATE, FINISH EARLY.

Let's start with the basics - what does it mean?

Simply put it means cut the fat. 

OR

START your scene as late as possible, then FINISH the scene as soon as you can.

Why is this important?

The human attention span grows ever shorter as time moves on.

If you watch films from the 60's and 70's, you'll find a lot of scenes where a character would finish work, drive home, park the car, then walk into the house, say hi to the family, then the phone would ring bringing bad news. 


It’s plain to see from this given scenario that the only important story beat is the phone call that brings bad news.

It is the only beat that MOVES THE STORY FORWARD.

Everything else prior to that was expositional, meaning it simply showed us the environment where our character worked and lived, but nothing occurred to move the narrative (story) forward.

There was no progression or development of story until the phone rang with bad news.

Contemporary society grows bored easily. The vast majority of people have grown up with ready access to multitudes of viewing alternatives. 

If you shot a sequence such as the above and showed it to contemporary viewers they'd grow bored very quickly. If you had three or four scenes like that in a row, they'd very soon watch something else.

As a viewer, I want to be hooked IMMEDIATELY and never given a chance to get bored.

That's another common mistake I see in amateur screenplays - the script will start with a powerful opening scene that really hooks me, then the writer seems to feel that they've done their job and they have license to take their time writing the following scenes.

Nope.

Not gonna cut it.

You need to grab your viewer in the opening scene then continue to move the story forward with every scene.

I've talked about SCENES OF DEATH before.

SOD are where nothing in that scene moves the story forward. 

It's the surest way to lose your audience.

Think about your own viewing experiences.

How often have you been watching something that began promising then started to wander, lose focus, and you found yourself soon bored with it?

I imagine the answer is far too often. 

OK...

So how to avoid writing SOD.

The simplest way to approach this is to UNDERSTAND YOUR STORY.

A lot of writers don't really understand where their story is going. 

They seem to think that so long as they're filling the page with text then they're doing their job.

WRONG.

Your job as a writer is to KNOW your story and KNOW where it’s going.

Go to the screenplay you're currently working on.

Break it down into scenes. 

Here's an important principle... 

Each scene should be no more than 3 pages long.

There is no minimum length. 

If you can convey a story beat in one tenth of a page - DO IT! 

A handful of 5-page scenes are ok – but really – try to keep all scenes to no more than 3 pages long.

If you have any scenes in your present script that run longer than 5 pages - you really need to trim them. 

Here's a test for you...

Go and grab one of those 5-page scenes. 

Write down the STORY BEAT that's occurring in that scene.

Write down WHY that scene is IMPERATIVE to have in your script.

Once you KNOW WHY the scene is in your script, think about how you could execute that story point as quick as you can.

Identify what the MEAT of your scene is and what the FAT is.

TRIM THE FAT.

It doesn't matter how great that piece of dialogue is, or how fun that moment is if it doesn't directly relate to conveying your scene's story beat...

...CUT IT.

It is FAR better to have 30 3-page scenes in a 90-page script, than 18 5-page scenes.

You will have 30 major beats as appose to 18 major beats.

Think about POP music. 

Most songs are three minutes long.  

When a song goes on for 5 minutes we start to get bored. 

Then when a song goes on for 8 minutes we're really bored.

(Of course there are exceptions to this - but what we're trying to do is look at GENERALLY what works and what doesn't. Most people are happy to listen to pop songs for 3 minutes. Most people grow bored of most pop songs after the 3-minute mark.)

THE BABADOOK is a great example of a story that keeps moving forward at a fast pace. 

The majority of scenes in that film are only 1-2 minutes long. Many of the scenes are only 30 seconds long. 

Remember that 1 page of your script equals 1 minute of screen time. 

The Babadook cost $2m to make and did $10m in cinemas - on top of that it's safe to say it's made another $5m from DVD and VOD. 

Regardless of if you liked The Badabook or not, it's a huge financial success. One of the major factors that led to this is that it continually moves the story forward.

HOW TO KEEP THE PACE?

Ask a question - don't answer it.

Humans are notoriously curious. 

You will keep your audience engaged if you pose a new question in each scene that goes UNANSWERED until a later scene.

Go to your script and look at how you reveal information. 

Find scenes where a question is asked and answered in the same scene.

Remove the answer from that scene. 

Now go to a later scene and transplant the answer.

It could be the very next scene, or it could be 10 scenes later. 

What you've done is create INTRIGUE, which is a very powerful storytelling technique. 

GOALS...

Humans love goals.

Goals drive our day to day lives.

When we see a character with a goal, we'll stay engaged with the story until the goal is achieved. 

When the goal is achieved, if there isn't a new goal established quickly, the audience will grow bored.

But here's the thing - there are very different types of goals. 

Find the remote control and turn on the TV - is a goal.

But we don't really care about that goal unless there are STAKES attached to the goal.

Make sure that every goal has some sort of baring on the character's life. 

The goal of turning on a tap to get a glass of water doesn't really mean much - UNLESS your character has spent the last 4 days in the desert and is dying of dehydration. 

URGENCY is the final story engine that will help you keep your story moving forward. 

If the goal can be achieved in 12 months we're not going to care about it as much as a goal that must be achieved in 2 minutes. 

But really... 

All these tips come back to the main title of today's post...

START EARLY, FINISH LATE.

THE TAKEAWAY...

KNOW YOUR STORY.

Find the core of each scene. 

Trim down each scene until you're only conveying your story beat in that scene.

Try to keep every scene to 3 pages or less.

Allow yourself a few 5 pages scenes, but only a few, and make sure they’re long for a reason – not just because you’ve got some fancy dialogue or a fun beat. 

Remember the four major story engines...

GOALS
STAKES
URGENCY
MYSTERY.