Posts filed under ‘books’

Directing: What I’ve Learned So Far, Part 3

On Story and Screenwriting:

It is said that there’s only a handful of stories that can be told, and all stories told are variants of these.  While I don’t know if that’s 100% true, it is very difficult to find variety these days in movies, books, games, etc.  What keeps us going back to the theatre is how the stories are told.  If it’s a romantic comedy, it’s usually something along the lines of Boy Meets Girl, Boy Embarrasses Himself Trying To Get Girl, or something like that.  However, each person telling this story has their own unique way of telling it.  Annie Hall is different from, say, The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, but on paper they might seem like similar movies.  Don’t focus on creating a unique story, focus on telling your story well. Remember, whatever idea you have, most likely its already been done.

Screenwriting is different from other types of writing in that the style and format are always in flux, and there’s not really room for detail.  Before you sit down at your computer to write a screenplay, you must learn the format. A screenwriting book that teaches format is a good place to start, and there are tons of websites that have screenplays available to read.  Be warned, however, that many ‘published’ screenplays on the Net could be shooting scripts, which have their own format and are not to be used as ‘spec’ scripts, which is what you write when you want to sell your story.  Another good step is to invest in screenwriting software, or plugins for Word (or your word processor of choice) that will format for you.  Keep in mind that not every program is perfect and you must pay attention to make sure the formatting is correct. Screenplay format is so important, many agents, executives, producers, etc. will not even bother reading the rest of the story (no matter how good it is) if the format is bad.

This book by David Trottier is a great place to learn format

This book by David Trottier is a great place to learn format

As I mentioned before, you don’t have room for lyrical, Nobel Prize-winning prose in a screenplay. Be concise, get to the point.  If there’s a fight scene in your story, don’t explain exactly how one character fights, and the movement they make.  That’s boring.  Honestly, I have this problem when reading books.  For example, I was reading The Bourne Identity and Robert Ludlum has a habit of describing, in specific detail, how the characters fight.  This leg moved this way, so-and-so’s arm swung that way, blah blah blah.  That style of writing bored me so much that I couldn’t finish the book (I do mean to, one day).  In screenwriting, a simple “They fight” is all you might need.  Let the director and choreographer worry about the details.  In other places, such as descriptions of settings, details also need to be to-the-point.  If your scene takes place in a jungle, don’t go into detail about the sweat dripping down the characters’ faces, or how the midday sun beat down upon them and baked their skin.  Just set it up as, “They trek across a hot, sweaty jungle” or something to that effect.

If you’re a director, or a producer, consider going to someone else to write your screenplay.  You could have an amazing idea, but you may write poorly; in that case, having a professional (or as close to ‘professional’ as you can get) writing it will probably be your best bet.  Just like with editing, doing everything yourself may cause you to lose sight of what’s important in the story. You may get attached to certain scenes or lines, and may be wary of removing them in rewrites, even if it may seem necessary.

The Final Draft series of screenwriting software is among the best.

The Final Draft series of screenwriting software is among the best.

As for story structure, most people go with the Three Act Structure.  It’s concise, simple, and most successful movies follow this, like Star Wars and Jurassic Park.  There are some that don’t go this route, which is fine (Raiders of the Lost Ark is said to have more than four acts), but I would advise against it for first-timers.  Remember, you must learn the rules first before you can break them. Another thing to remember is that all stories must have conflict.  I’d even go so far as to say that it is impossible to tell a worthwhile story and not have conflict.  Whether it’s Good Guy vs Bad Guy, or Good Guy vs Himself, or whatever, the main character must want something and there are forces at work against him.

Recently, Christian Bale was asked how the filmmakers got him to be a part of the new Terminator Salvation movie.  He said that the script had to be so good that it could be performed without fancy visuals and still tell a compelling story.  Apparently, the script he read was good enough to meet this criteria, and he’s now the new John Connor of the franchise.  This should be true for all movies.  In the rehearsal process, a table read is usually done so that everyone involved (cast, director, producer, writer, etc) can hear the lines spoken out loud and to fix any problems before formal rehearsals get underway.  During the table read, there is not fancy CG imagery or editing, it’s just the actors and their lines.  The story must make sense when told from this point of view.  If the actors alone can’t tell the story, there’s something wrong with the script.

When you’re writing a student film or a low-budget indie flick, consider your budget beforehand. Don’t write a Hollywood action movie if your budget is $50 and you can’t get access to fancy equipment.  Locations are also something to thing about; a 15-minute short doesn’t need 30 different locations.  If possible, keep your locations to a bare minimum needed to tell the story.  Usually, that’s enough.  Also, don’t cram in a dozen different characters.  The less speaking roles, the better, since this will make casting and shooting go by much smoother, and more unnecessary speaking parts may confuse the audience.

Although, in Hollywood, screenwriters are treated as second-class-citizens, that doesn’t mean your story must be treated this way.  As a director, this is your version of someone else’s story.  Even if you wrote the story yourself, consider what looks best on screen.  Remember, filmmaking is, above all, a visual medium for telling tales.  If it looks good on paper, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t work on screen, it must be changed or it must be removed.  There’s an old saying in Hollywood, “You can make a bad movie from a good script, but you can’t make a good movie from a bad script.” This is 100% true.  Even the most ridiculous premise for a story may have just the visual punch needed to make a good movie.

(images from Amazon.com)

Directing: What I’ve Learned So Far, Part 2 – On Crew

May 24, 2009 at 9:13 am 3 comments

‘Star Wars’ Horror Novel This Halloween

From starwars.com:

This Halloween, Star Wars publishing goes someplace very new and very scary, with the release of the first Star Wars horror novel, Deathtroopers, by Joe Schreiber. The text for the back cover is still to come, but this front cover art by Indika is so creepy, we just couldn’t wait to share it with you.

Haven’t read a Star Wars novel in years.  Will definitely give this one a shot!

January 31, 2009 at 6:23 pm Leave a comment

Book Review: Scar Night (The Deepgate Codex, Book 1)

Alan Campbell’s debut novel is a gritty, blood-soaked fantasy set in a gothic world where angels live among humans, gods plot their revenge, and a city hovers, literally, on the edge of destruction.  Before going into the book itself, I think it’s necessary to go into the well-crafted mythology that is the basis for the story.

Thousands of years ago (possibly longer?), the ruler of Heaven, Ayen, casts out her son Ulcis, the God of Chains, and several of his bretheren.  Ulcis falls to Earth, leaving a massive hole in the ground, the bottom of which is where he now supposedly takes up residence.  He then sends up his Herald, the angel Callis, to preach his word to the humans.  Ulcis needs them to supply souls to restore the ranks of his army; he will then strike back at his mother and retake Heaven, granting humans admission as well.  In order to do this, Ulcis instructs Callis to create a temple where the humans can worship him and send their sacrifices.  The location for this temple: right above the seemingly bottomless pit.  Callis, and the other 99 angels that followed Ulcis, pass the word along to the humans, who not only construct the Temple, but an entire city called Deepgate.

The story follows a few characters, one of the the angel Dill, last of the Battle Archons, the warrior angels that protected Deepgate from her enemies, most notably the Heshette.  The Heshette are desert-dwellers who worship the Goddess Ayen, and are sworn enemies of Deepgate.  Dill is not like his ancestors, he doesn’t know how to fight, fly, or do anything that would be deemed ‘useful’; he’s basically a figurehead for the Church, brought out every once in a while to show the people of Deepgate that their religion is real.  He becomes paired with a young assassin, Rachel Hael, who works for the Spine, the Church’s secretive military wing.  She is basically a glorified babysitter, having not passed all the required tests of the Spine, but still retaining many of their deadly skills.

There’s also another angel, Carnival, who hunts her human prey once a month on a night called Scar Night.  Working for the Church are Presbyter Sypes, the head of the Church, and Adjunct Fogwill, Sypes’ assistant.  There’s also Devon, the Church’s chief Poisoner, and a man named Mr. Nettle, who mourns after the death of his daughter.

Scar Night is rich with history and characters, like any novel, fantasy or otherwise, should be.  Unfortunately, Campbell seems to get so caught up in his characters that he sometimes forgets to move the plot forward.  There are more characters that play major roles in the story, but that’s part of the problem.  I feel like this book is tackling something so broad and epic in scope, that it tries to introduce is to so much, then rush the plot toward the end.  That isn’t to say it’s a bad book; I quite like it and I feel that it’s a great introduction to what could be an incredible series.

The novel is divided into three parts, and as the chapters progress, the intensity slowly builds…up until the last quarter of the book.  All of a sudden, there’s an explosion of action, like a payoff with a buildup that was still building.  A good chunk of the action is reserved for the final part, which is split between two different locations, but I feel that there wasn’t enough action going on in the previous two parts.  I was honestly bored through most of the first part, although the second opens with a very inventive fight inside a giant ball that, not only is it rolling on top of buildings, but is also on fire.  For those that have seen Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest, it’s like the swordfight in the giant wheel, only with a much bigger wheel, and it being lit on fire.

The style in which the book is written is like a mix of old gothic-sounding English mixed with the occasional modern-day slang.  It’s very descriptive, and at times very beautiful.  The city of Deepgate itself is wonderfully detailed.  It’s a city suspended by chains, built on chains, and wrapped in chains.  By some of the description in the book, you could almost smell the rust and corrosion in the air as the city is slowly decaying.  I keep picturing a twisted, macabre version of an industrial 19th-Century England.  Alan Campbell has fully realized this world on paper, and it shows here.

By the time I finished the book, I felt ready for more.  This obviously is the first part of a series (it’s part of the Deepgate Codex), and it feels written as one.  Campbell does a fine job of setting up the characters, even if the plot takes a while to go anywhere.  The sequel, Iron Angel, was released earlier this year, and it’s sitting on my bookshelf right now; I can’t wait to start it.  Despite its flaws, Scar Night is a novel fantasy fans shouldn’t pass up; it’s vivid in the descriptions, rich with characters, and thick with atmosphere.

7.5/10

(image from Amazon.com)

For those really interested in the world of the Deepgate Codex, Alan Campbell has written a novella that acts as the prequel to Scar Night, called Lye Street.  The cheapest I’ve seen it is on Amazon, but the rare limited editions are available on eBay for a considerably higher price.

July 16, 2008 at 1:01 am Leave a comment

Book Review: World War Z

I know, I’m a little late to the party.  I’ve finished World War Z a few weeks ago, and I meant to post this when I finished it, but then I got caught up reading another book (which I will post a review of soon).  Anyway, Max Brooks, who’s best known for his Zombie Survival Guide, brings his knowledge of the undead to a more traditional novel in World War Z. Told in a non-traditional narrative using interviews of the survivors, World War Z is a gut-wrenching, exciting, and occaisionally very human look at war against the undead.

The novel is broken into parts, going chronologically from the first reports of an ‘undead outbreak’ to full-fledged war to the brink of extinction, then to the turning of the tide, and finally victory over the undead.  Don’t go reading this expecting something like the novel versions of 28 Days Later or the remake of Dawn of the Dead.  While there are moments of action and sheer terror, this book takes place after the events have already happened, so the interviews are more retrospective than in-the-moment.  For example, one of the interviewees is a former U.S. Army soldier who was on the front lines at the Battle of Yonkers, which was a humiliating defeat for the United States.  His account of the battle, since he’s telling it roughly a decade after the event, has a more all-encompassing view.  He knows now how each little decision he, his fellow soldiers, and the commanders made affected the outcome of the battle.  Max Brooks’ decision to set the ‘story’ after the war ended allows his characters to inject more humanity into their tales.

The interviews themselves are greatly varied, ranging from accounts of battles, to tales of families trying to survive, to stories of world leaders deciding the fate of all humanity.  The U.S. soldier I mentioned earlier appears a few times throughout the novel, each time giving his perspective on a different moment of the war.  The Battle of Yonkers takes place early on in the war, when the world’s governments have no real plan for dealing with the crisis and are still fighting the ‘traditional’ way.  We also get an interview from the man who formulated the plan of survival in a realistic, albeit incompassionate way.  He basically suggests abandoning areas that a nation’s ground forces can’t hold, consolidating what’s left of the military, then secure the areas that aren’t overrun.  Only then should a nation consider retaking lost territory.  This means millions of people could potentially be left behind as the world’s armies retreat to more defensible positions.

There are also plenty of tales with regards to those left behind.  We get a story of a Japanese teenager whose parents leave him in their apartment.  Being a nerdy tech-geek, this kid basically has to find a way out of his apartment (which is already overrun with zombies) then make it to the street and find someplace to go.  He obviously survives (since he’s recounting his story), but finding out how he, and the other interviewees survive make up most of the excitement in the book.

World War Z occasionally gives glimpses into the state of the world as the zombies begin destroying everything.  Pakistan and Iran fire nukes at each other.  China and Israel fight their own civil wars.  Many Americans flee to Cuba, the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that isn’t completely overrun.  There’s also some interesting bit of news regarding North Korea.  I greatly enjoyed these glimpses into worldwide affairs, as most zombie tales, especially the movie ones, only focus on a person or group of people, rarely bothering to show us the state of the entire world.

Many of the survival tips Max Brooks mentions in his popular Zombie Survival Guide get put into play here.  For example, many of the civilians, such as the Japanese kid, rely primarily on blunt or sharp object to battle the undead.  It makes sense; it would probably be easier to find a baseball bat or a large knife as opposed to a gun.  Plus, as Max Brooks says, “blades don’t need reloading.”  In the unlikely event that the undead do rise, many of the actions these survivors do can be repeated in a real-world setting, unless the zombies are the fast running kind like in the remake Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later (if that’s the case, then we’re all screwed).

At the heart of this book are the very human stories.  I couldn’t help but think of the many tales coming from the survivors of the Holocaust; the stories of families in hiding, waiting for the day when the Gestapo discover them and break down their doors.  There were a few stories like this in World War Z, like families sitting at home enjoying a normal evening, when all of a sudden a zombie crashes through the sliding glass door.  There is one story, which to me is possibly the most haunting of them all, that centers around this family hiding in a church.  I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s very emotional, and pretty disturbing.

World War Z is an incredible novel, and a great read.  Not too long ago, Brad Pitt’s production company won the bidding war to bring this book to the big screen, and I hope they do it well.  While I know they won’t be able to tell all the stories in the book, there are a few that could be translated to the silver screen (like the aforementioned retired soldier, and a briefly mentioned story involving besieged college students).  Even if you don’t like zombie books or anything related to the undead (I, myself, am not a huge fan of the genre), World War Z should be on a must-read list.  Vividly written, with a surprisingly emotion punch, Max Brooks’ novel is not one to be missed.

9/10

(image from Amazon.com and deviantart.com)

July 14, 2008 at 11:08 pm Leave a comment

A book for your dog…?!

Many years ago, I was at a cousin’s house and I went to use the bathroom. I sat on the toilet, then began to peruse through the various magazines they had in a magazine rack. There were what looked like children’s books sitting among the magazines, which I thought was weird; most people don’t normally have books in the bathroom, just magazines. The two books were, “The Gas We Pass: The Story of Farts” by Shinta Cho and Amanda Mayer Stinchecum, and “Everybody Poops” by Taro Gomi and Amanda Mayer Stinchecum. Each book is only 30 or so pages long, with cartoon illustrations that appeal to kids, and they’re about exactly what you think they are about. The pooping book is about pooping, the farting book is about farting. Simple.

That got me thinking, “You can write a book about anything and potentially get it published.” Maybe there’s a children’s book somewhere about sneezing, or boogers, or foot fungus. If the book is marketed right and priced accordingly, there’s an audience for it. And then I came upon a manuscript for a book called “A Book For Your Dog”, and it’s pretty much exactly what you think it’s about. With a slight twist. You can read the book to your dog, but your dog will probably be the only who can understand it. Here’s an excerpt from one of the chapters:

Woof, woof, woof, arf, arf, woof, bark, bark, bark, grrr, bark, arf, woof, woof, arf, arf, grrr, grrr, woof, woof, bark. Woof, bark, bark, woof, arf, arf, arf, bark, bark, woof, woof, arf, arf, arf, bark, woof, woof, woof, bark, bark, grrr, grrr, woof. Bark, woof, woof, bark, arf, arf, bark, bark, grrr, grrr, arf, arf, bark, bark, grrr, grrr, bark, bark, grrr, grrr, arf, arf, grrr, grrr. Grrr, arf, bark, bark, arf, arf, arf, grrr, grrr, woof, woof, bark, bark, arf, woof, bark, bark, woof, woof, arf, arf, bark, bark, woof, woof, arf, arf, arf, bark, woof, woof, woof, bark, bark, grrr, grrr, woof. Bark, woof, woof, bark, arf, arf, bark, bark, grrr, grrr, arf, arf, bark, bark, grrr, grrr, bark, bark, grrr, grrr, arf, arf, grrr, grrr. Grrr, arf, bark, bark, arf, arf, arf, grrr, grrr, woof, woof, bark, bark, arf, woof, bark, bark, woof, woof. bark, bark, woof, arf, arf, arf, bark, bark, woof, woof, arf, arf, arf, bark, woof, woof, woof, bark, bark, grrr, grrr, woof. Bark, woof, woof, bark, arf, arf, bark, bark, grrr, grrr, arf, arf, bark, bark, grrr, grrr, bark, bark, grrr, grrr, arf, arf, grrr, grrr. Grrr, arf, bark, bark, arf, arf, arf, grrr, grrr, woof, woof, bark, bark, arf.

I can totally see this sitting in an eclectic collection of books in someone’s bathroom. If this were to actually be published, how much would someone pay for it? If it were priced at $1, would you buy it?

(images from Amazon.com)

January 31, 2008 at 2:25 pm Leave a comment


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