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Friday, December 31, 2010

Untamed Heart Versus Kill the Pimp: My Journey to the Big Screen Part 2

As I journey on the road to the big screen, knowledge and persistence will be my driving force. A writer can never stop reading, researching, learning, submitting (even when your rejection to acceptance ratio is 25 to 1 or 250 to 1), and most of all writing.

Today I'm going to discuss researching because that's the really fun part. How do you research screenplay writing? You watch movies. Preferably in the genre you plan to write. It's nice if you have the screenplay to follow, but I'm finding, even at this beginner stage, I'm able to interpret in each movie many of the concepts I'm learning, without the screenplay in hand. And I'm picking up on concepts that I haven't yet learned but I suspect exist.

Back to genre. Currently my screenwriting partner and I are planning a romantic drama/comedy screenplay, and I've been watching movies in those genres. It's fascinating what you learn when watching a movie through a writer's focus lens instead of just for enjoyment.

I do not know if screenplay writing, like fiction prose writing, has character-driven versus plot-driven concepts, but there appears to be a distinct difference in the movies I've watched. And I'm finding that my experience in prose writing can only enhance my potential at screenplay writing.

Here's the difference. Character-driven stories will provide the viewer/reader with a deeper connection to a character. This is, for example, the untamed heart sways the untouchable heart and invokes a major transformation. It's also Frankie and Johnny (one of my new favorite movies) and Beautiful Girls.

Plot-driven stories will provide the viewer/reader with a deeper connection to some goal. This ending goal can still be love and not be character-driven. The characters can be so driven toward the plot that you don't connect deeply with the characters. This is, for example, kill the pimp to save the girl. It's also The Proposal and Sweet Home Alabama - the goals here were love, but the characters were kept at a distance from the audience. It's easier to see this when you compare it to a character-driven movie like Frankie and Johnny.

It gets more complicated when you throw in things like psychic distance and plot points or mini plots, but I'll discuss these another time.

In the hands of a truly gifted writer, both character and plot can shine, but this is rare. Think of movies like Moonstruck or When Harry Met Sally. Movies in which you felt deeply connected to the characters and dedicated to seeing them achieve their goals. In Moonstruck, I was Loretta going to the opera with Ronny. I was in the seat next to him as he lifted my hand to his lips and tenderly kissed it. At the end I was in the kitchen as Ronny proposed with the ring Loretta had just returned to his brother Johnny - all in one seamless transition. It's a beautiful thing when a screenplay results in a movie that can evoke such an emotional connection while at the same time drive toward a well-developed plot.

I'm a beginner at this. I doubt my first screenplay will be a Moonstruck. But if I had to choose which way to drive my screenplay, I'm finding that I prefer strong characters. I don't need a bold, grand, heavy plot finale as long as I can connect with vibrant characters that grow or change in some way - preferably in a way I can relate to - in a way that tells me something about myself - in a way that makes me think - in a way that strokes a weakened emotion inside me. And I'm not an easily moved person, so I know if it moves me, it will likely move most anyone. That's what I want to write. That's what I want to see on the big screen - more Frankies and Johnnys.

And if, in the process, we create a killer plot - bonus!

Writers: Here's a fun exercise. If you think you'd like to try screenwriting, pick a scene from a favorite movie, and try to recreate it on paper. Pay close attention to setting and camera work, and of course action and dialogue. Don't worry about format - just try to get it written out. If you want to see examples of format, click here or Google "screenplay format".


  1. warrenjc said...

    I agree with you Karen. Character driven, all the way. Otherwise it holds no meaning.

    The reader has to have someone to care about and a character to relate to. He/she wants to struggle with the protagonist to get to point B from A.

    Who cares if a person gets from A to B. It's all meaningless unless I know WHY he wants to go there. A straight plot driven story is nothing but shoot em up bang bangs. This is why Die Hard 1 was so good. It can be used for a good character arc. My opinion and I'm stickin with it. LOL.

    Good writing Karen. Keep us in the loop with your attempt.

  2. Lori said...

    Very Interesting. When I started writing I really started paying attention to details in movies and one of the first ones that struck me was in the movie Juno--when she first walks through the halls at school, she's a small fish swimming up stream and nobody pays any attention to her. When she's nine months pregnant, the whole world parts for her.
    Keep up the God work.