Improv for screenwriters – a sketch exercise that’s useful for scene work.

This is the exercise:

  1. Pick a situation that would happen in life.
  2. Identify five typical things thats would ordinarily happen in that situation.
  3. Pick an unusual thing.
  4. Apply that unusual thing to the list you generated in step 2.

Example: A lady goes to a gym to see a trainer.

Unusual thing: the trainer is the most pervy guy ever.

You want to find things that show him being pervy, but also relate to personal training. So wesk ourselves, what would a normal personal trainer do? That’s the base reality, the world of the familiar.

  1. Greet client at desk.
  2. Ask about fitness goals.
  3. Run through stretches.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical.
  5. Spot the client on weights.

Now we want to filter through the pervy trait.

  1. Greet client at desk. “What’s your sign?”
  2. Ask about fitness goals. “I think losing 7 pounds is your sweet spot. Lose that, keep the rack.”
  3. Run through stretches. I see him crawling under the client in suggestive ways.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical. He puts a porn DVD on the LCD screen.
  5. Weights. “Snatch, clean and jerk, baby. This remind you of anything?”

You can generate sketch ideas off the personal training specifics with different adjectives. Fatherly, religious, paranoid. You get the idea.

ISN’T THIS FORMULAIC?

Yeah, kind of. But it’s a general framework for a kind of sketch writing. Think of it as an exercise, simplified but illustrative of a more useful idea.

It’s only as formulaic as you make it. You could choose a more complex trait for the trainer, you could make the client a memorable character in their own right. But even at its most simplistic, this exercise drills pure creativity. Any hack can fill out a template like this. It takes a creative person to fill this out creatively, populating a tired old frame work with a surprising, understandable pattern, amazingly lifelike dialogue, beautifully rendered specifics.

HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO SCREENWRITING?

Movies will always have a premise,  a character, and a setting (world). Given that all of these will have wonderful specifics, it’s pretty easy to list what’s ordinary, than layer over what’s special and specific about your story.

World: Science fiction, ten years in the future.

  1. Greet client at desk. Maisie walks to the desk. A scanner grid covers her body, rendering her form on the hologram pad. VOICE: Hello Maisie. You have gained three pounds.”
  2. Ask about fitness goals.VOICE: It looks like you haven’t done much… cardio lately. Would you like to do more… cardio? Maisie ignores the voice as she breezes through the turnstile.
  3. Run through stretches. Maisie stretches. She puts on a VR headset. Suddenly, she sees a yogi master guiding her through her positions.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical. A zero-gravity upside-down elliptical.
  5. Weights. She straps into an electrical iron maiden. It works out all of her muscles. A 30 seconds later, she stumbles out. She looks ripped… and exhausted.

Premise: Ordinary world, Claire is a trainer who spent last night helping her best friend hide a body.

  1. Greet client at desk. Oh shit. It’s a Sheriff’s deputy.
  2. Ask about fitness goals. She asks about fitness goals. He replies, but she’s sweating badly, she can’t follow along. She’s going to get caught. She knows it.
  3. Run through stretches. As she helps him stretch out his back, her leggings ride up. She’s got dried blood around her ankles. She hides it.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical. The deputy reveals that the Sheriff is going to be checking out a storage locker that could incriminate them.
  5. Weights. She sends a secret text to her friend. “Get to that storage locker now!”

Character: Bob is a nice, Fundamentalist Christian people pleaser who’s wife left him last night.

  1. Greet client at desk. Everything is hunky dory!
  2. Ask about fitness goals. “You have to have goals. Without a plan you’re lost and alone.”
  3. Run through stretches. They talk about church. The client brags about his happy marriage. Bob pushes the client too far, hurting him.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical. Bob runs alongside the client. He pushes himself hard. Scary hard.
  5. Weights. Bob is about to bring over a plate for the bench press. He collapses, sobbing. His wife has left him and the world, once friendly and happy, seems cold. Is god really there? Everyone looks at his destruction, unnerved.

HOW DOES THIS WORK?

This comes from UCB, which is focused on “game,” which, put simply, is that which makes entertainment (UCB’s game is all comedic because it’s a comedy school. But you can use game for horror, romance, etc).

The trainer specifics are the base reality. It’s the ordinary world, the frame of reference that grounds us to the material. Even in the future example, we know how gyms work, so the future gym, while different, is relatable and subliminally illustrates truths about the world and time it exists in.

The responses to the specific are the game moves. They each form a pattern, and taken overall, they communicate one main point in a variety of interesting ways. (1. The future is different in the following ways… 2. Claire’s ordinary job is now super complicated by the premise… 3. Bob’s character traits are illustrated by watching him do what he does…)

You want to start with a base reality, something that a normal human can relate to. Then you want to heighten it with the specifics of your plot, characters and world. You can have characters react to new information, but then the scene can keep moving, setting you up to illustrate the next specific point.

BASE REALITY IS IS IMPORTANT

In a scene you can have a crazy character, a crazy world, or a crazy plot, but not all three. Something on screen has to be understandable to regular folks, otherwise we get lost and lose the ability to relate to whats on screen. But relatable gets predictable and predictable is bad. You want to provide some break from the expected because your telling a story. But make sure that you  break from the reality. More importantly, you want to find a way to get back to the reality, setting it up again so you can knock it down again.

Let’s say you’re doing a scene where the new king gets crowned, but that king is actually a nervous imposter. You might want to show as much of the coronation as possible so you can mine that characters discomfort before he inevitably gets exposed (or worse, named the ultimate dictator of the land).

If you ever get stuck in a scene, ask yourself what would typically happen in an ordinary reality or a genre. Return to expectation until you find another way to subvert expectation.

This is based on an improv training exercise by Nick Mandernach. Used with permission.

Genre 101

Update 10/23/14: This is an earlier version of this post, which I like a little better.

Video game genres: First Person Shooter, Real Time Strategy, Rail Shooter

Movie genres: Comedy, Drama, Horror, Fantasy, War

Genres in video games are named for how we influence the medium. Genres in movies are named for how the medium influences us.

ENTERTAINMENT

A movie can have an intricate plot and still be boring. A movie can have a great character and waste his or her potential on generic interactions. Plot and character are elements of a story. The end goal is to entertain. This is a weirdly controversial point. We can argue the semantics… entertain could mean engage with us, take us other places, whatever. But the end goal is the same – a story is successful if it does these things and unsuccessful if it does not.

Entertain is a loaded word. People hear “entertain” and they think disposable popcorn thriller, comic book schlock, or some other ghettoized notion. But all movies entertain, be they a Michael Bay sequel, Masterpiece Theater, or an art house movie. The target audience may differ, the means by which it’s entertaining may differ, but they all entertain in some way.

That’s where genre comes in. Genre suggests how a movie will entertain.

MUSICALS

Musicals are the most obvious form of genre because the characters are either singing or they’re not. Let’s say the average Broadway musical runs about 2 hours, has 20 songs, and those songs run 4 minutes long. That means that they spend 80 minutes entertaining us with song and dance, 40 minutes entertaining us by other means. If you like song and dance, you might be interested in a musical. If you’re not, you know to stay away.

Big deal, you might say. I don’t write musicals. Here’s why that matters:

Hypothetical example: Writer Alan Smithee pitches me a movie with a lot of world building and setup which requires a 30 page first act setting up a world of zombies, vampires, and an original race called the Organelle. He sets up the complex politics between them and threatens them with a war.

The script sucks. It’s all setup, no punch, the classic shitty second act[1] .

ME: “There’s nothing in the middle. You need more action setpieces to prove to me why it’s necessary to learn all the setup you want me to learn. What’s the payoff?”

HIM: “Why does everything have to be about war or violence? Why can’t this be a story about characters interacting, talking. I want to write a drama?”

ME: Let me ask you this – why not write it as a musical? I know that sounds ridiculous, but seriously, why not?

HIM: Because I can’t write songs.

ME: Well, can you write dramatic scenes?

DRAMA

Genre suggests how you’ll be entertained. If you’re pitching me a drama, you’re pitching something with few unrealistic moments, where the entertainment value comes from watching characters have conversations. That’s really hard to do. Any idiot can fill a page with dialogue. If you’re writing a spec, you’re saying that you can write 100 pages of riveting dialogue scenes, where the words have incredible depth and meaning and the emotions behind them are as intricately plotted as an elaborate heist movie. That’s really hard. Compare a bad one hour drama to a great one. They both will cost about the same, they’ll both have staffs of highly skilled writers, but not all drama is great.

If you’re selling a drama, you’re sellling your ability to write amazing character based scenes. Not everyone can do this well. And if you can’t, it’s like you’re writing a musical with shitty songs.

GENRES

According to IMDB these are the genres that exist:

ACTION, ADVENTURE, ANIMATION, BIOGRAPHY, COMEDY, CRIME, DRAMA, FAMILY, FANTASY, FILM NOIR, HISTORY, HORROR, MUSICAL, MYSTERY, ROMANCE, SCIFI, SPORT, THRILLER, WAR, WESTERN

I’m going to spilt them into two categories.

  1. Genres that suggest the emotional effect they create in an audience: ACTION, ADVENTURE, COMEDY, DRAMA, FAMILY, HORROR, MYSTERY, ROMANCE, THRILLER
  2. Genres that don’t: ANIMATION, BIOGRAPHY, CRIME, FANTASY, FILM NOIR, HISTORY, MUSICAL, SCIFI, SPORT, WAR, WESTERN

Category one is pretty simple. Action creates visceral spectacle, adventure takes us on a journey, comedy makes us laugh, drama illustrates human nature, family reassures, horror scares, mystery puzzles, romance is romantic, thrillers thrill.

Category 2 is more complicated. Animation and musical are styles of storytelling. You can achieve any of other genres through them, but musicals use music and animation uses animation.

Biography promises us the story of a person who actually lived. That person is going to be a simplified version (seecharacter 101[2] ) but they’ll probably need another elements genre to accomplish entertainment.

The others are settings. They suggest the world a story will take place in, but they are not complete genres unto themselves.

THIS IS THE POINT THAT TENDS TO GET ME IN TROUBLE

If there are no “pure” Sci-Fi films then what are 2001, The Matrix, Close Encounters, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds? If genre suggests how a film entertains us then what are the above films entertaining us with if not with Sci-Fi elements like Space Travel, A.I. concept, Alternate reality concepts, Alien life concepts, technological advancement concepts? Sci-Fi isn’t merely a setting, it is a device used to express abstract thoughts /questions like is time something you can travel through?  Reddit user calprosper [3]

While sci-fi concepts certainly suggest an angle of exploration, you can’t solely promise a sci-fi movie and fully communicate how you’re going to make that idea entertaining.

Let’s say we’re exploring the butterfly effect. Wouldn’t you want to know if that will be explored via cool scenes of killing dinosaurs, mopey scenes with Ashton Kutcher, or brainbending tech talk like in Primer (which could be argued as a pure sci fi movie, but I see it as an indie drama).

Reddit user Supernovaploy [4] explains it thusly:

To understand, I think it might help to think of “science fiction” the same way you think of “fiction”: neither label gives the reader any indication how the story is going to progress. The Notebook and And Then There Were None and The Fundamentalist are all “fiction,” but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who says they’re all the same genre.

Similarly (using Heinlein), Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and The Number of the Beast are all “science fiction,” but no one who’s read them will say they’re the same kind of story. Stranger is more political/romance, Troopers is political action/thriller, and Beast is adventure/(romance).

[In this paradigm,] “Genre” is an identifier that necessarily indicates a story’s construction, but not necessarily its theme. Because [cynicallad is] talking about story construction and not reading or watching for enjoyment, he’s breaking “story” into component parts. I do, for instance, think of “science fiction” as a genre – when I’m reading for enjoyment, I can take almost any sub-genre of sci-fi and have fun in the story, from Honor Harrington novels to Existence to Otherland. But when it comes to making sure all of a story’s required parts are present, thinking of “science fiction” as a genre doesn’t help me construct a solid story, so I shift my thinking just a few degrees.

THE CATEGORY TWO GENRES ARE MORE ABOUT SPECIFICS

Let’s say we’re writing comedies. We know that we want to create laughter in the audience. If it was a straight up comedy, we’d be setting it in our ordinary world, which requires little explanation. If we’re using something from the second category, we’re promising that there’s a damn good reason to use it, that much, if not most of the comedy will come from those specifics:

A biographical comedy might tell the story of a funny person (MAN ON THE MOON) or be a spoof send up of biopic tropes (WALK THE LINE)

A crime comedy will put a funny spin on crime specifics (ANALYZE THIS, SMALL TIME CROOKS)

A fantasy or sci-fi comedy will put a comic slant on a familiar genre ideas (YOUR HIGHNESS, SLEEPER)

Same with historical comedy, sport comedy, war comedy, western comedy (LIFE OF BRIAN, SEMI-PRO, STRIPES, BLAZING SADDLES). You get the idea.

IN CLOSING

There are dozens of genres (dieselpunk, alternate history, dogma films, nouveau vague, all those hyper-specific Netflix categories) but most every movie will lean heavily on at least one of the emotional primary colors suggested by the genres in category one.

No movie is purely one genre. They’ll all have moments of comic relief, or romantic interludes. An action movie is wise to slow things down with a dramatic scene. A comedy movie might have a genuinely thriller moment to ground the stakes in some kind of reality, but at the end of the day there’s usually one or two overriding genres, and that’s how movies are marketed, bought, and understood (sidenote: genres are like cats or bumper stickers. The more you have, the crazier you look).

You can mix them, you can subvert them, but genres exist and are a useful tool.

Premise[5] is a promise that you can make an idea entertaining. Genre is how you entertain. If you understand how to use genre and premise, you’ll have a big head start when it comes to planning a script and filling in the sequences you’ll need to cover the 60 page death valley in the center of the script that we call the second act.

Project: Wraithmore/40 beats (first draft)

This is supplemental material for an ongoing project. You can see how it developed here:

PART ONE: Stating a premise.

PART TWO: Reacting to feedback.

PART THREE: World Building

PART FOUR: Applying three act structure

PART FIVE: Breaking it into 40 beats.

ACT ONE

  1. It’s 1933 and the world has fallen into darkness. 4 years ago, a rift opened in the sky and monsters flooded into the land. America has fallen apart, people live in fortified towns and cities, terrified of the dark, when monsters come out.
  2.  Silas (18) lives in Wraithmore. He hates his town and he’s plagued by nightmarish voices in his head, that tell him to kill. He ignores them, but they disturb him, especially because the voices can often predict the future.
  3. He spends his time working on a car – he dreams of escaping the town and heading for the west coast, where things are better.
  4.  Silas’s father is an elderly scientist who used to work for Edison and Tesla. He’s been a shell of himself since Silas’s mother died.
  5. When Silas’s father gets sick, the town ignores it,
  6. but the lovely and kind Grace (18) stops by with an apple cobbler. She admires Silas’s car. Silas falls desperately in love with her.
  7.  Grace and her father go on a routine trade visit to a neighboring city,
  8. but monsters attack in broad daylight, which has never happened before.
  9.  Word reaches the town as night falls.
  10. 10. Silas decides to venture out into the darkness in his unfinished car. It doesn’t even have working doors. The night beckons.

**ACT TWO**

  1.  Grace is captured by a DIABOLIST, a human who has gained power (basically wizards) by serving the darkness.
  2. Silas drives through the woods, gets ambushed by monsters.
  3. Grace ends up escaping, kicking ass, and wreaking havoc with a shotgun.
  4.  She flees into the night, where she encounters Silas, who’s pinned down by mindless monsters. They team up. Grace’s gun and Silas’s car prove a winning combination.
  5. They take shelter in an abandoned house,
  6. but have to escape/fight a creature that lives in the drains – it’s made up of gallons of congealed blood harvested from murder victims through the years.
  7. Surviving the house, Silas and Grace decipher the journal of the diabolist Grace escaped. The dark is rising, and the monsters are becoming more aggressive because their king, WILHEIM FEIBER is en route by sea, a powerful thing from Europe. He’ll make landfall at Wraithmore. The town is fucked. The journal alludes to the one thing that can stop him, the work of DR. GERWITZ.
  8. MIDPOINT: Silas wants to escape, but he wants to impress Grace more. She easily talks him into helping her save the town. Silas is a complete idiot in matters of the heart, Grace makes it easier for him to embrace the better angels of his nature.
  9. They head upstate, fighting monsters. The dark voices in Silas’s head get louder and louder, a strange musical beat throbs beneath them. Silas, desperate to please Grace, doesn’t tell her about the welling madness in his mind.
  10. Anyway, they get to a tower by the sea, where Dr. Gerwitz lives and works. He’s an old friend of Silas’s father, they both worked with Tesla at Wardencliff. Dr. Gerwitz welcomes them inside,
  11. but something is very wrong. The house is a nest of horrors, Gerwitz has snapped and has been running insane human experiments in an effort to develop something that will kill Feiber. Gerwitz wants to kill Feiber, not to save humanity, but to enslave it himself.
  12. Silas and Grace fight their way through Gerwitz’s legions of monsters, kill Gerwitz, and
  13.  discover the plans for a Tesla-coil like device that can disrupt Diabolist powers.
  14. They race back down the coast, ready to stop Feiber.
  15. Feiber’s ship makes landfall.
  16. He’s an ordinary man in a gray suit with a gray homburg, but when light hits him, he casts a long shadow, and his shadow fights for him. The device makes the shadow waver for a moment, but then Feiber destroys it.
  17.  Feiber senses the taint of darkness in Silas and uses an occult pipe organ to control him like a puppet, making him beat the living shit out of Grace. He tosses her off a cliff, onto a beach of jagged rocks.
  18. Dawn breaks, and Feiber and his forces retreat to the woods.

**ACT THREE**

  1. Silas is broken and guilty. He’s about to throw himself off a cliff, but then he finds something in his pocket (TBD). With her last moments of strength, Grace slipped something into his pocket, which both establishes her forgiveness, understanding and love (again, TBD), and gives him a clue to how to harness his powers.
  2. Silas searches the beach for Grace, she’s survived, but is badly hurt. Silas explains that he’s always heard voices from the dark, Grace forgives him. She sees the good in him and points out that most people never get temped by evil, Silas is stronger for always resisting it.
  3. Silas and Grace return to Wraithmore. They have no plan, but Silas tells them what they’ve found.
  4. Silas’s actions galvanize the town, and they all work together to prepare for the final assault. It turns out that most, if not all of the townsfolk hear the voices in their heads, they’ve just never had the guts to admit it. In the end, Silas works together with Grace, his father, the local blacksmith, and various other townfolk to marry the song of the darkness with the Gerwitz device in a cross between a therimin and a tesla coil. Electrified music.
  5. The monsters attack in waves, spurred by Feiber. The device gives them a fighting chance, but
  6. Feiber recovers, aided by traitors in the town. It all comes down to a climactic final duel in a lighthouse, between Silas, Grace, and Feiber’s monsterous shadow.
  7. Silas and Grace win awesomely (sequence TBD) and save the day.
  8. Silas’s aging father saves the day, but sacrifices himself to give his son a fighting chance.
  9.  WEEKS LATER: The town throws a goodbye for Silas – he’s going to go up and down the coast to warn the other towns and share the technology. Grace insists on going with him. The dark is still coming, but now they have a shot.

Almost every character is some kind of archetype. That’s not a bad thing.

I once asked people to name some characters who couldn’t easily fit into archetypal categories.  The answers surprised me.

  • Randal Floyd – Dazed and Confused
  • Jackie Brown – Jackie Brown
  • Max Fischer – Rushmore.
  • Commodus – Gladiator
  • Kirk Lazarus – Tropic Thunder
  • Mark Zuckerberg – The Social Network
  • King Schultz – Django Unchained
  • Freddie Quell – The Master
  • Don Logan – Sexy Beast
  • The Entire Cast of American Beauty

The problem with this is that all these characters are archetypes. They’re specifically customized, tweaked and rendered, but all have strong Jungian prototypes and their subversions and specificity works because it plays along with or counter to the archetype.

Don’t get me wrong, all of these are good characters, but they’re also archetypal characters. One could even argue they’re good because they’re archetypes. Each writer put their own stamp on them, and it’s the specific detailing that makes them good. Almost every character is based on some kind of archetype. They become complex and specific in the details.

I think beginning screenwriters often have the attitude of “formula = bad” and therefore anything good must be completely original. I wholeheartedly disagree. By learning about archetypes, you can see the underlying structure and grammar behind great characters and add greater power, meaning and specificity to your own.

Randal Floyd – A ne’er do well neighborhood Lothario. He’s that kid you knew who knew way too much about sex all grown up. There’s one in every town.

Jackie Brown – A hustler who has to pull off one last scam to leave the life. And that’s not counting all the blaxploitation tropes that this movie embraces.

Max Fischer – An outsider nerd who wants the girl. Sure, we’d never seen this kind of type-a nerd specifically wanting his teacher before, but that’s a specific choice within archetype not a subversion of it. The subversion would have been if she totally fell for him.

Commodus – A sneering, incestuous tyrannical emperor. We’ve seen his archetype everywhere from Draco Malfoy to Joffrey Baratheon. He’s also a rip on Caligua and all the other period Roman movies that predate Gladiator.

Kirk Lazarus – A method actor out of his element? Never seen that before.

Freddie Quell: A lost soul who can’t get his shit together and needs to constantly move on? See Five Easy Pieces, You Can Count on Me, and any indie movie where the hero leaves town with all his possessions in a backpack with no clear idea of where to go.

Mark Zuckerberg – A lonely, solitary genius who’s great with numbers but who can’t connect with human emotions? Don’t hurt yourself, Sorkin.

King Schultz – Okay, whoever said this one has a point. Still, he’s a white teacher who helps a black student reach his potential. Still, he’s a funny foreigner who’s very functionally similar to other flamboyant warriors who hide their lethality behind the affect of a dandy, like Doc Holiday in Tombstone, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Shane.

Don Logan – An organized crime psycho who’s the harbinger of bad things to come. Sure, it’s a specific version of that, but the subversion would be making him the romantic lead. Even then, he’s still an archetype.

The entire cast of American Beauty: The uptight Stepford Wife, the angry white man in open rebellion, the artsy daughter, the sexy Holden Caulfied weirdo, and the tough drill sergeant dad who’s secretly closeted. How could anyone think of characters like those?

World Building 101

ME: Specs with a lot of world building have a built in problem…

SOMEONE ELSE: Screw the rules! I’m not a hack like you! I’m creative! Enjoy riding your formula train to mediocrityville!

Okay, look, there’s no script god, and even if there was, he’s not going to strike you down for setting a story in the land of Elsenduff, where the Centaurs, the Ogres, and the Flitterkin have a tense, three-way alliance. World building is an effective tool in the screenwriter’s toolkit. That said, all scripts are a collection of choices. Each choice brings with it strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to understand what you’re signing on for.

1. Defining World Building

In a sense, all scripts take place in some sort of “unusual world,” even if that unusual world is a metaphor for the uneasy psychological territory the character finds themselves in after the plot incites an incident in the ordinary world.

Once upon a time there was a _________. Every day they did ___________. Until one day _______. And so… *Source – the oft quoted Pixar’s Rules of Writing post.

Breaking Bad rarely strays from New Mexico, but Walter White finds himself in a strange new underworld once he gets involved in crime.

Lorenzo’s Oil starts with ordinary parents. When their son gets sick, they must move heaven and earth to save him.

You get the idea. If these were fables, the characters would go to some Jungian underworld to seize some totemic sword. In modern times, they just suffer a lot, which usually forces some kind of change. The metaphorical world is not what people are talking about when they talk about world building.

All scripts have settings. The degree to which a setting takes a script into world-building territory is the degree to which it challenges our understanding of how things work.

Many fantasy/horror scripts use our mundane world, then lay a genre element over them. Ghost has ghosts. Wolf has werewolves. The X-Files, True Blood and Buffy have a plethora of weird things, but they exist in a recognizable real world. These are light on the actual world buidling part, but still have unusual stuff that needs to be explained.

A world-building script is a script where a new world is introduced, one that has different rules and customs, things that need to be explained.

Many fantasy scripts take a normal character to a new world. The Wizard of Oz. Alice in Wonderland. South Park’s Imaginationland. These have to explain the world, but they have an easy time of it, because there’s a relatable POV character to ask the right questions and react to things as a normal person might. If a character from our world finds himself in the Gravity Forests where rain falls upwards, they ground the reality by pointing out the unusual and reacting to it.

Then there are world building scripts where the unusual reality is the “ordinary” part of the story. These include – fantasy/scifi worlds like Middle Earth, the Star Wars Universe. Scripts that take place in the far future. Scripts that take place in the distant past (I accept that Weimar Republic existed, but if I see two gay guys kissing in the street, I’m going to need a little more context to understand how brave they’re being). If a trailer begins with “In a world,” odds are it’s one of these. The more out-there the world is, the more grounded it needs to be.

2. Explanation and Grounding

If an evil wizard has a ton of powers, there ought to be some explanation for why he can’t just wish our heroes dead. If a DeLorean goes back in time, you’ll probably want some plot-specific limitation on its crazy powers. You don’t always need to explain this (ghosts in movies like THE GRUDGE probably could just kill our heroes, but they don’t because… ghost reasons), but sometimes its necessary, even if the answer is silly. Movie explanations are less about explaining time travel,and more about some one in the scene having the presence of mind to at least ask about it.

This becomes harder in a world that’s removed from ours. Bilbo Baggins isn’t going to look out on Middle Earth and say, “Gosh, isn’t it unusual that I live on a planet with dozens of other intelligent species?” The story has to set up the rules, usually by showing, not telling. BAD: A title card says: In this world, cursing is the worst thing ever. BETTER: Cops chasing a serial killer give up on him to take down a guy who says “Damn.”

You can also ground a world via a character’s emotional reactions to things.

If Bob and Alice are humans in a magical world full of beings called Xdys, I’m lost.. But we can infer a lot about the world by how the characters react:

BOB: I saw a red Xdys.

ALICE: Sigh. Is it Monday already?

BOB: I saw a blue Xdys.

ALICE: Are you getting high again?

BOB: I saw a black Xdys.

ALICE: It… it can’t be. We’re all going to die. I… I’ve always loved you, Bob.

For more on this complex topic, read this: http://improvoctopus.tumblr.com/post/89935504418/emotional-heightening-component-game-theory[1]

3. Space Constraints

The problem with this exposition and setup is that it takes up a lot of space. In any story, your first act has to establish character relationships and what each of their deals is, and you’ve got to set up high concept props, stakes, and other stuff. In a worldbuilding story you have to do all that, plus the setup for the world. This will usually require more space.

Here’s where someone’s going to say, You hack! There are no rules! Why should I restrict myself to 120 pages or less? Did you know Reservoir Dogs was 131 pages?

To which I say, sure, do what you want. We’ve already discussed the absence of a script god. But still…

The page restriction is a cultural bias. The bias might be silly, but it exists and should be accounted for. A good, but unknown writer who writes a 131 pages might need every goddamn line to tell his amazing story, but he ends up ghettoizing himself into the same category as the dozens of terrible writers who don’t know how to edit themselves and don’t understand how perception influences opinions.

Putting it another way, the page limit is like a salary cap in the NBA or NFL. There, teams can only spend so much on player salary, or else they incur penalties. The salary cap is a written rule intended to prevent rich teams from buying all the stars. The page count is an unwritten rule that prevents readers from having to read 151 page drafts (gotta draw the line somewhere).

People can and do go over 120 pages, but there’s a penalty. You risk a reader’s goodwill and faith that you know what you’re doing.

Putting it a different way, the longer your script is, the more you’re raising the bar for yourself. If you’re going to inflict a 131 page draft on someone, there’d better be a damn good reason for every line, and it had better be as good or better than Reservoir Dogs. Good luck with that.

Given all this, setting up a world takes away valuable pages that might be better served elsewhere. Like in telling a great story, writing a moving scene, or just slowing down the rhythm of a plot and creating some blessed white space.

4. World building is secondary to telling a good story, entertaining people, whatever you want to call it.

You might have a great fantasy world, a well-researched period piece, or an exceedingly complicated set of alliances. God forbid, you might even have all three in the same script.

Unfortunately, not everyone is going to find the Elvish Language/1920’s Paris/the Trade Federation as interesting as you do. Bad worldbuilding scripts inflict themselves on the reader, like a 1980’s comedy character who wants to show you vacation slides.

The trick is to write a story that’s so good that it will appeal to someone who might not even like the genre or setting (Game of Thrones and Star Wars are great at this. Star Trek has always struggled with it).

Simply put – if you’re going to spend 25-30 pages making me learn the rules, minutia and trivia of your make-believe fantasy land, there had better be some damn good payoff for it. I don’t want to learn new things so I can be lectured on genetics, go on a travelogue to imaginary places, or learn about the political structures of non-existent governing bodies. I want something awesome.

The world and exposition of Star Wars enables this awesome stuff:

  • Using the force
  • Awesome space battles that look suspiciously like WWII
  • Lightsabers
  • Darth Freaking Vader.

The world and exposition of Game of Thrones enables:

  • Trial by combat
  • The Battle of the Blackwater
  • Ice zombies attacking the realms of men.
  • Intrigue and investmen (one of the many reasons why the franchise works better in TV than it would as a movie)
  • Tyrion Freaking Lannister

The world and exposition of Harry Potter enables:

  • Quidditch!
  • The Chamber of Secrets
  • Tom Riddle’s evil diary
  • House elves, time turners and the Deathly Hallows (okay, bad example).
  • Severus Freaking Snape

A bad world building script enables

  • More world building!
  • Travelogue!
  • Scenes of people talking that might actually be better if they were talking about anything other than the world.
  • Fight scenes that become boring because it’s not clear what weapons can hurt what armor.
  • Lots and lots of names and genealogy that have nothing to do with the plot.
  • Dense and crammed pages because the author prioritized putting a ten line speech explaining stuff on every other page instead of investing that space into action, character, or anything moving, investing, or fun.

5. In Closing

World building is not storytelling. World building is only useful to the degree that it allows the story to do awesome things that wouldn’t be possible without it.

You can do anything you want in writing, you’re just making a series of choices. If you’re going to make a big choice on the world, it’s important to know the pros and cons of that choice. Or ignore everything I just said. It’s your damn script.

Emotional grounding in world building via “the orienting effect”

The following is the work of Alex Berg, excerpted from this blog. He talks about using emotions to ground, frame and orient a reader in insane fictional worlds. I think every writer should read this one.

“The example I’ve been using for years to demonstrate the benefits of emotional heightening is a fictional scene titled “The Land of the Weird Dragons.” In this scene, let us suppose that we had a dragon who breathes penises instead of fire. One can easily imagine making a move to heighten the game of this scene by introducing a dragon that breathes vaginas instead of fire. However, this is a lateral move, in that a dragon that breathes penises instead of fire is neither more or less absurd than a dragon that breathes vaginas instead of fire. The absurdity has reached a saturation point…”

…Let us now imagine that there’s a dragonslayer, set out to fight these weird dragons. We can now judge whether or not one of these dragons is a weirder, more heightened dragon based on the strength of his emotional response. If he responds to the penis dragon with “Oh dear… a penis dragon,” and the vagina dragon with “WHAT?!? A vagina dragon?” then we can say that the vagina dragon is indeed weirder. However, if he responds to the vagina dragon with “Oh no… vagina dragon!” and the penis dragon with “EGADS!!! What madness is this penis dragon?!?” then we know that the penis dragon is weirder. But note that we haven’t changed anything about either dragon, the stimuli in this example have remained stable. We’ve simply introduced a trustworthy emotional proxy for the audience, and we’re evaluating the intensity of his emotional response.

That the intensity of an emotional response is positively correlated to how unusual a stimulus is well documented in psychology, and is called the Orienting Response. Here’s a quick quote from our modern day Lighthouse of Alexandria, Wikipedia:

The orienting response is a reaction to novel or significant stimuli. In the 1950s the orienting response was studied systematically by the Russian scientist Evgeny Sokolov, who documented the phenomenon called “habituation”, referring to a gradual “familiarity effect” and reduction of the orienting response with repeated stimulus presentations.

Really, just read the blog in its entirety.

Premise Test Examples

Reader question: You talk about your premise test a lot. How would you apply this to a more character driven piece like Five Easy Pieces or Dog Day Afternoon? Or even Reservoir Dogs. How about the Shining or Taxi Driver. What theme do the protagonists of those stories learn?

My premise test:  An <ADJECTIVE> <PROTAGONIST TYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. They do this by <DOING> and learns <THEME>.

I have no idea what process the authors of these used; it’s not like they used my premise test. But I can work backwards:

FIVE EASY PIECES: A self destructive piano genius must resolve his issues re his estranged father or else continue his downward spiral. He does this by (events of the movie) and learns that his efforts to normalize or resolve his life are doomed to fail. Hence he continues his drifter lifestyle.

DOG DAY AFTERNOON: A desperate man robs a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation, but a hostage situation ensues. He must escape it or else go to jail. He does this by (events of the movie). He fails, and learns that his failings (carelessness and desperation) have doomed him in crime just as they’ve doomed him in all other areas of his life.

RESERVOIR DOGS: A group of criminals (and one undercover cop) pull off a robbery, but have to hide from the heat. They quickly turn on each other and do (events of the movie) in the process leaning that their line of work precludes trust.

THE SHINING: A writer on the edge must resist the seduction of an evil hotel, or be transformed into a family-killing madman. He attempts this by (events of movie) and fails, learning that the human animal is frail, corruptible, and more susceptible to evil than we’d like to admit.

TAXI DRIVER: A border-line psychotic, alienated war vet takes a job driving a taxi in 70’s New York. He must cope with his growing violence and madness, and try to find hope in a world that seems dingy and fallen or else give in to madness and violence/wreak evil. He does this by (events of movie) and eventually learns to channel his madness into something that almost resembles heroism.

THOUGHTS:

I’ve purposely avoided the doing section, because it’s been a while since I’ve seen any of these and I don’t want to dilute my point by getting the details wrong. Note though, the importance of the doing section. Even if you keep all the other options the same, you can radically change any of these stories by substituting in “winning a surfing contest,” “turning into a wereshark,” or “by taking care of six loveable orphans.” You can boil any of these stories down to a basic premise. If you can’t do this on your premise, you might not have enough material yet.

Even your “character driven” movies have plots. Their characters flourish because they have something to do and a world/story to push against. Just because I’m stating premise first doesn’t mean I’m ignoring character. At some point, I’ll continue with the examples and show the character stuff I do before starting.

Some people read the test and think “this is soulless and will yield nothing but cookie cutter ideas.” The point is to know how to bend it to make it work for you. Almost every story has a character (or group of characters), and they’re going to have a goal and do things. This is formulaic only in the sense that sentence are formulaic for having nouns and verbs.

Most loglines are weak because they’re all about the first act setup and give no clue for how the story will be resolved. Example: A time traveler escapes to 2014, but is tracked by a time cop who wants to kill him to prevent a time crisis.

This tells me the first act, but doesn’t hint how the second act will unfold. I want to know how the story is resolved. Do they fight across the time stream, do they end up in a time jail, does it turn into the second act of Looper? Is the story about love, car chases, gun fights, sword fights, or battle by giant robot?. Each of those choices birth a different movie.

So the real question with the doing part of a premise is “Can I see filling a 60 page second act with this idea?”