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Writing Excuses 5.22: Film Considerations [with annotations!]

Writing Excuses 5.22: Film Considerations [with annotations!]


And special YouTube version at

Key Points: Formulas or patterns can be used for many things IF you understand why they work. Three act structure: introduce characters, setting, and problems. Then add complications. Resolve everything in the climax. If you want your story to map to a 90 minute movie, keep it lean. Know what your story is about, what you are trying to say. Think of a logline/tagline: what is the essence of your story in 8 words? The closer the events of the climax in time, the higher the emotional impact -- don't spread your resolutions out over several chapters, put them all in one. Beware the shootout, the chase, the tail end flurry that's there just to end with a bang. Make sure there is foreshadowing, motivation, and emotional movement, not just fireworks. Give the chicken a reason for crossing the road. Don't settle for a student filmmaker -- check their credits, and get the money up front.

[Howard] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by audible and is also available on YouTube. If you want to find it, search YouTube for Writing Excuses and the season and episode number, or you can visit our website and look for the link in the liner notes.

[This version of the transcript has been annotated to hint at the actions shown in the video, however, if you can, you really should look at the video. After all, these annotations cannot include all the eye-rolling, grinning, smiling, hand waving and all that. Nor does it list all of what the other people did in reaction to Dan...]

Transcript without annotations

[Four people sit at a round table with a white tablecloth, still showing the folds from cleaning. The table has a cable of some kind running across it, along with a couple of plastic cups and a drink can. On the right, a man in a black short-sleeved shirt holds an iPhone in his hand. His beard starts at his ears, just below his glasses. His head seems to have a slight stubble, but no more hair than that. This is Howard Tayler. Beside him sits a man with a greenish shirt, open-necked. His hands are out of sight under the table. That's Dan Wells. Next is a woman, wearing a patterned shirt and a wine-colored sweater. She is grinning, slightly, at the man in the green shirt. This is Mary Robinette Kowal. Finally, there is another bearded man with glasses. He has a dark shirt, tie, and suit coat. He has more hair on the back of his head than Howard, but his hair also seems to be somewhat grayer. He also seems to be wearing an identification badge, perhaps from a conference. His fingers are laced, settled in front of him. That's Dave Wolverton. These four people are today's panel for... Writing Excuses, the Video!]

[Howard, bouncing his shoulders, and bobbing] This is Writing Excuses, Season Five, Episode 22, Film Considerations. [He palms the iPhone, and points at Mary]
[Mary] It's 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Howard] I'm Howard Tayler.
[Dan] I'm Dan...
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Dan] Wells. [Everyone laughs. Howard settles back in his seat.]
[Howard] Dan Wells. [Howard punches Dan in the shoulder]
[Mary] I'm Mary Robinette... [Mary pauses, and looks at Dan] Kowal. [Dan points his finger at Mary, giving her the point.]
[Dave] And I'm Dave Wolverton, a.k.a. David Farland.
[Howard] Well, Dave and Mary, thank you very much for joining us. We're here at Writing Superstars in Salt Lake City so we've got lots of opportunities for special guests. We've got [Howard points at the camera] Moses Siregar here from... [Mary waves at the camera; Howard looks puzzled at the camera] what's the name of the podcast?
[Moses] Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing.
[Howard] Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing who is videotaping us. [Howard waves his hands as he says] And we are chewing into our time limit by talking about that. [Then he points at Dave] Dave, give us a quick introduction of you. Who are you?
[Dave] I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer who has also worked for... writing novels, video games, and in film. So...
[Howard] Excellent.
[Dan] [Dan has one hand on the table now, and flops it down while talking] Titles, real quick, for the listeners? We've got the Runelord series...
[Dave] Runelords is probably my biggest series.
[Dan] The video game you worked on was StarCraft: Brood War, one of the biggest of all time. [Howard grabs the drink can and takes a chug while Dan talks]
[Dave] StarCraft: Brood War, yeah. I'm working on some films, and unfortunately, right now they're untitled, so it's... [Dave waves his fingers briefly, then folds his hands together on the tabletop]
[Howard] So we're not allowed to talk about that.

[Dan] Know what that's like. OK. Well, what we want to talk about today is [Dan lifts both hands and shakes them in the air, as if grabbing something] movie considerations. When you're writing something, after you've written something and you're trying to sell it. [Dan points at Mary] Mary, we want to start with you, you were talking about a Hollywood formula that can work for fiction. Tell us about that.
[Mary, smiles and turns to Dave, lifting her hand to point at him] Actually, I was going to ask Dave to talk about that.
[Dan] Are you undermining me on my own podcast?
[Mary] I am undermining you on your own podcast.
[Dan] Well, that's OK, you can do that.
[Mary] No. The interesting thing about formulas is that [Mary slices the air with her hands while talking] you can apply them to a lot of different things if you understand why they work. I was talking with Lou Anders of Pyr books, and he was talking about the Hollywood formula and how it can map onto fiction.
[Dan] I think it's important to point out that formulas are not inherently bad, for the same reason that a recipe is not inherently bad. [Dan emphasizes his points with his hands] If you follow it correctly, it works. If you don't know what you're doing, then it does seem like it doesn't.
[Mary] Exactly. Right. [Mary slices] Once you know why the formula or the recipe works, [and then waves her hands more fluidly] you can start changing things and swapping them around. But where you run into problems is where... like, if you look at it and go, "Ah, Harry Potter was successful so I therefore will write a story about a young wizard who lives under the stairs." [Mary beats the points in] That's not the formula.
[Dan nods] Yeah. All right. So... [Dan tosses the ball to Dave with an open wave of the hand]
[Dave] There are a number of different formulas. I'm not even sure if I want to call them formulas all the time, sometimes they're just ideas that help.
[Dan] Patterns? Oh, OK.
[Dave] But, for example, the most common thing you're going to hear about in Hollywood is the three act structure. OK?
[Howard] I'm a big fan of the three act structure.
[Dave] They like to say you can break the story down into first act, third act... beginning, middle, and end is the simple way to put it. The beginning, of course, is where we introduce the characters, we introduce the setting, we introduce the conflict, and... that's sort of usually the first act. [During Dave's explanation, the video camera drifts to the background, where we find a young woman reading and Jordo apparently surfing the web] Maybe there's some complications that start taking place, things get worse and worse and worse... that's the second act. The third act is where everything gets resolved in the big climax. Then of course, we have the denouement where the story resolves and everything is brought back to peace and the bad guy is destroyed and everybody gets their treasure and falls in love and lives happily ever after. That's basically your three act structure.
[Dan] Perfect.
[Howard] [Howard emphasizes his point with his left hand] What I like about the three act structure is that [capturing the point on the table top] once you're familiar with it, when you learn other things like the Campbellian monomyth or try-fail cycles...[raising both hands with fingers spread] you can map...
[Dave] Or the five act structure or whatever...
[Howard] Yeah. Whatever. These map into the three act structure just fine. I'm a fan of the three act structure because, as I learned in corporate presentations, the human brain can't hold more than 3 to 5 thoughts simultaneously. So I always carve things into three parts.
[Dan] Well, maybe yours. [Dan lowers his hand, and stares at Howard]
[Howard] I'm not that smart. [Dan cracks up] [Howard swats Dan's shoulder] And you're the one that said we are not that smart. So let's stick to it.
[Mary] And we only have 15 minutes.
[Howard] And we only have 15 minutes.

[Dan] That's right. Let's talk then about movie considerations. Specifically, with the three act structure. How does that help? I mean, is that helpful for transitioning your story into a movie eventually?
[Dave] I think it is, in a couple of ways. First of all, if you've got a three act structure, you start realizing that your story can be sprawling, enormous, and complex. OK? Your big fantasy tome of 300,000 words will not make a 90 minute movie. Unless you cut out lots and lots of what's going on. So you have to be lean, you have to pare things down, and think in... OK, I've got eight minutes to introduce this character and the conflict and the world, how am I going to do that in eight minutes? So you're going to say, if I'm going to be writing a book that I want to have transformed into a movie, I might look at a really quick way of how do I get all of that out, and get my characters going on their journey, basically.
[Howard uses a pen in his hand to sketch the map in the air in front of himself] If you're trying to time that, my understanding is that most screenplays are spaced and formatted in such a way that it roughly maps to one page per minute?
[Dave] That's right.
[Howard] So if eight pages into your screenplay you are still introducing characters, it's time to prune.
[Dave] That's right. Exactly right.

[Dan] It seems like it would also want to really consider, really think about what your story is really about. To make sure that even if there is lots of extra fluff, [Dan holds the fluffy air in his fingers as he talks] because a lot of readers love all the extra stuff, that you know at the core, [Dan strips off the fluff and slides the core out with his right hand] this is what I'm trying to do and this is what I'm trying to say.
[Dave] Yeah. Very often, you'll meet with an author and you'll say, "So what's your book about?" And they go... [Dave holds his hands up by his head and waves them] "it's 100,000 words, it's about 100,000 words. I can't put it in anything less." In Hollywood, they would go, [Dave shakes his head] "That's not a possible movie." We need to understand in one line, your tagline, your logline. What is this movie about? "Give it to me any words," is the way that it's often put. OK?
[Dan] That's something that... I've seen a lot of movie pitches, and I think that something a lot of writers can definitely learn from. Because they're really quick. The way we sold my serial killer series in Britain was saying, "This is teenage Dexter in an X-Files episode." Which is... [Dan wipes away the extra with his hands in a quick gesture] boom, that tells you everything you need to know about it.
[Mary] Shades of Milk and Honey is Jane Austen with magic.
[Dan] Yeah. Which doesn't tell you [Dan wraps up the air with one hand] what the story is, [Dan repeats his gesture] it doesn't tell you what the characters are, but [Dan makes a loose fist and holds it down as he pulls the story out of the air] it's enough of a hook that you instantly know what's going on.
[Dave uses his left forefinger to count on his right forefinger] It tells you, usually, the age and sex of the character, it tells you a little bit about what the tone is supposed to be, it gives you a lot of information really, really quickly. If you can just sit down and boil it down to that, you're doing great.

[Dan picks up the iPhone and glances at it] All right. Let's take a really quick break and talk about our book of the week which is going to be... [Dan gestures at Dave]
[Dave] David Farland's The Runelords. It's book 4 in the series, The Lair of Bones, coming out from... it just came out from
[Howard] Yep. So head on over to You can kick off a 14 day free trial and have a listen to some fantastic David Farland.
[Dan] If you have not read the Runelord series, the first three books are also an audible.
[Dave] That's correct.
[Dan] So you can start with the first one, which is just called The Runelords, correct? It's a fantastic series with a really, I think, ingenius magic system that delves into a lot of moral issues, that is very cool.
[Dave] The good thing is book 4 stops at the first big arc, so you've really kind of got a great resting place for the series if you get to it.

[Howard] So Mary, let's come back to the question that Dan originally handed to you.
[Mary] Right. Sorry about that.
[Dan looks at the ceiling] Which you dodged.
[Howard] No, no. That's all right. Discussion of formula... is there a particular film writing formula that you've found worked well for fiction writers?
[Mary] Well, this is the thing that I thought was very interesting from the conversation I had with Lou. He described... in the Hollywood formula that he was describing, he said that...
[Howard] That's Lou Anders?
[Mary] Lou Anders, yep. He said that there is [just at the edge of the video, Mary counts on her thumb and fingers] the protagonist, your hero of the story, there's the viewpoint character, there is your antagonist, and then there's the conflict, the problem. For the first part of the story, what you're doing is that you are introducing the protagonist and the problem. Up to a certain point, you can keep adding problems. Then you have to start solving them. When you get to the end... and this is the part that I was like, [Mary looks around] "Ah, this is why so many endings in fiction I've seen... like the dismount failed." That the closer you can come to having... [Mary gestures as she explains] the viewpoint character is like the buddy, and there is frequently a conflict between them. So the closer you can come at the ending to [Mary counts the two characters and then circles them in the air with her finger] having the protagonist and the viewpoint character resolve their differences, [Mary counts the other points on her other fingers] defeat the villain, and solve the problem... [Mary squeezes the points closer in the air] the closer you can have them happening in time, the more of an emotional impact it will have. I was working... at the time, I was working on a novel and [Mary shows the parts separated across the table in front of her as she talks] I had the viewpoint character's resolve, and I had them solve the problem in another chapter, I had them defeat the villain in a third chapter. I could tell that it was misfiring, but I couldn't tell why. So I went back and I was like, "Well, let me see if I can actually make this happen all in one chapter." Everybody that I've handed that piece of work to, weeps at the ending. Which is the first time that I've had that happen quite that consistently.
[Dave] Well, that's great.

[Dan] There's... now, one place where I think Hollywood often gets this wrong, is the shoot out.
[Mary] Yes!
[Dan] That's something... they'll have all the character problems resolve, and then they'll end with a shootout or a chase scene. Which is kind of their way of going out with a bang, and yet always feels hollow.
[Mary] Yes.
[Dan] I see that creeping into fiction, creeping into books, a lot. I mean, a lot of the things that we see in movies, are coming more and more into books. So what are some ways that we can avoid doing that?
[Mary] Well, I think, I mean, I think one of the reasons that that happens, that the reason it feels hollow and cheating, is because they have not sufficiently motivated the characters to make that a natural place. That it's forced. That's a case where you are catering to the formula rather than making sure that the characters are driving. In puppetry, we call this muscle. That's the idea that things are moved from within,[Mary uses her hands to show the force pushing up and out] rather than being moved by external forces [Mary uses her hands to show the forces being imposed from outside]. I think a lot of times when an ending, when that sort of thing happens, it's because you can see the filmmaker's hand. [Mary shows her hand reaching down to the table]
[Dan] Uhhuh. All right.
[Dave] I think that's true. I try to look at it in terms of emotional movement. You can walk across a room, but you can also change how you feel about things. So for example, I could go from really despising her, and then upon meeting her in getting to know her for five minutes, say, "Oh, I think I'm in love."
[Dan] That's what most of us do.
[Dave] So we work really hard to get emotional movement in your story. If you think about it in those terms, those problems will start dropping away.
[Howard] At the risk of reducing this to first grade pith, it's the why did the chicken cross the road joke. To get to the other side is a funny punchline because we are all expecting justification and not getting it. When you write your novel, the chicken bloody well better have a reason to have gone to the other side of the road. Otherwise, it was the filmmaker's hand picking up the chicken and moving it.
[Dave] Absolutely. Absolutely.

[Dan] Now, we don't have a lot of time left, but one of the things that we wanted to hit here were some of the considerations in terms of you've already written something... a book or a short story... Dave, you said when we were planning this that sometimes within a week of a short story coming out, a zealous movie agent will contact you and say, "All right. I want to buy the rights to this." What are some things to keep in mind when that happens?
[Dave] First of all, when you have a producer... you don't just take anybody who says "I'm a producer." Don't take them at their word. Go find out what their credits are. If they're capable of making this movie. If they have any real money. If they're willing to invest real money in it, and give you money, then they're a little bit more credible than the guy who says "I don't have any money, but I have... I know everybody in Hollywood, I work with all of them."
[Howard] Just because you are a new writer, does not mean you need to settle for a student filmmaker.
[Dave] Absolutely. Absolutely correct. There are people in Hollywood called Golden Retrievers whose job it is to go and get the rights to stories for nothing. Big producers will then come in, and you'll find out, "Wait a minute. I really had a huge producer behind this, and I just got screwed." You don't want to find yourself in that position. So don't sign anything, don't make any agreements. Talk to your agent, talk to somebody who works in the Hollywood industry a little bit. Do your own research online, that kind of thing.
[Dan] I was about to say, rule one, get the money first. But I think the real rule one should be get an agent first or an entertainment lawyer. Someone that knows the business that you can consult with.
[Dave] Absolutely.
[Dan] Rule two then is don't do anything for free. Make sure that you have money before you sign anything.
[Dave] And never take anything on the backend. OK? You always take it on the front end in Hollywood. There's long reasons behind this. I don't have time to explain about them.
[Howard] No. Yeah. At risk of making meta-commentary here, when you are writing with film considerations in mind, often you end up pruning. Just as we are podcasting right now with film considerations in mind. I think we've got 90 seconds in which to hand people a writing prompt and send them home.

[Dan] That's true. All right. So we're just going to make Mary do this. Give us a writing prompt.
[Howard] Writing prompt.
[Mary] So your writing prompt... thank you for the warning.
[Dan] That's our favorite thing to do to people.
[Dave] Put you on the spot.
[Mary] Your writing prompt is that you need to come up with a tagline for your novel, your short story, or something that you would like to write but have not yet written. Eight words or less.
[Dan] Sounds good.
[Howard] A tagline. All right. Well, this has been Writing Excuses. Thank you for listening. YouTube fans, let's all camp to the camera and wave. [Everyone turns to the camera, smiles, and waves] [End of podcast. YouTube continues] Thank you for watching. You're out of excuses. Now go write.
Tags: annotations, characters, climax, complications, conflicts, emotional impact, films, formulas, movies, patterns, problems, setting, tagline, three act structure

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