Tuesday, February 16, 2016

From the Second Floor #11

The Backstory

From the 2nd Floor #11

We write words. We hope that pile of nonsense can be organized into an order others will enjoy reading and watching.

Writers have goals, albeit a novel, short story or screenplay. I’ll leave theatre plays and other media out of the conversation for the time being.

We finish the work. It’s re-read, polished, examined by friends and agreed upon to be the final draft. It’s done.

But is all that work really done? Is it commercial? Did you create a backstory? Is there one character that will be loved, hated or admired? In other words, is it complete?

Let’s assume the ultimate goal is to write a screenplay designed for studio production and of course make money for everyone and win an Academy Award.

Your goal is aggressive, but can it be reached? Of course it can. In the motion picture industry everything is possible. Even the impossible can be flipped into the positive.

Can you learn to write from a book? Yes and no. Yes, you can learn sentence structure and the proper way to organize written work. Will the book teach you how to create story in depth? Some will argue, but in my opinion the answer is a resounding no. The written word comes from the heart not a book. If you tell a great story you can write one.

As a studio reader, you receive hundreds of submissions. How many can you read in a day or week? How do you grab the attention of the reader? You hook them and you do it in the first 5 to 10 pages. If you wait too long, the chances of your project getting covered are reduced to ashes.

So, the catch is to create this great story. How do you write it for submission? What does a great story need? The entire story must be one that can be told to others in two minutes. A story that is so entertaining you can reduce it to a one-page, compelling synopsis. A manuscript or screenplay, so ridiculously written the reader wants to flip the page. That’s your magic bullet.

Writing an agent or publisher a query letter for your manuscript is no different than verbally pitching a story or TV series idea. To hook the reader, you get anywhere from seconds to hours to secure interest from your audience. Decisions come quickly and sometimes they’re not always fair. Time is truly a commodity with limited boundaries. If your story is great, time is taken, reading schedules set aside and time becomes your pal. If the story is slow out the starting gate and you lose the attention of your audience, it can mean a certain death to the project. People want to turn pages. They want to know what’s happening with the story, the characters and those briefly mentioned in your backstory. The audience is demanding, short on temper and patience. They need to be entertained albeit that comes in many different formations. The audience is powerful and can’t be fooled or sweet-talked with nonsense.

It all comes down to the story and the backstory that accompanies your work. Take a look at all the fabulous screenplays considered for the Writers Guild of America and the Academy Awards this year. Boil it down to the finalist list and then pick the best original and the best adaptation. Spotlight had all the right elements and started with a bare-bones concept of what the Catholic Church had done. Spotlight was written as a story built by brilliant kids playing building blocks. They had backstory, story and history all going in the same direction. The story had a group of wonderful characters that knew how to interplay, mystery was created, and boredom eliminated.

Writing Spotlight took time and hard work. It paid off for Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy at the Writers Guild – now we wait to see if they win the Academy Award.

When you examine the other top 4 films, Bridge of Spies, Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; Sicario, Written by Taylor Sheridan; Straight Out of Compton Screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff; Story by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berlott; and Trainwreck, Written by Amy Schumer – you realize each had a great backstory, entertaining characters from all walks of life, unique story content, and perfectly developed beginnings, middles and endings.

Examining the best Adapted Screenplay crawls into a different bag of tricks. Here they have the story, backstory and a list of characters a mile long. The locations are set, and who and where everyone came from has all ready been exposed. So what’s the big deal? Ah, an adaptation is the gift of learning how to take a 500-page book and transpose the breathtaking manuscript into a 125-page screenplay. It sounds easy until you check the works, read the books or biography and realize there is so much wonderful stuff in each novel - your script can’t live without including all of it. On the second or third read you find ways to trim. The writer’s bag of tricks includes ways to remove words, restructure the intent, and still keep the authenticity and integrity of the original work.

Out of all the wonderful material available, the list dwindled down to the 5 best. The peers of those who write the words create the list – so the audience is not only picky but also demanding. They don’t want to make mistakes and usually don’t. They read, watch films and vote.

The narrowed list for best adaptation screenplays at the Writers Guild of America included: The Big Short, Screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay; Based on the Book by Michael Lewis; Carol, Screenplay by Phyllis Nagy; Based on the Novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith; The Martian, Screenplay by Drew Goddard; Based on the Novel by Andy Weir; Steve Jobs, Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin; Based on the Book by Walter Isaacson; and Trumbo, Written by John McNamara; Based on the Biography by Bruce Cook.

After many hours of watching films and reading screenplays, my writer colleagues and I voted again. The list was exciting and all those words hung in the balance. We’re a picky bunch. It took time to get the list to 5 – and then reduced to what we all thought was the best. The Big Short was chosen. The script started with a bang, the dialogue flew against the walls, the characters roared, laughed and behaved as expected, and the story dazzled. The writers made it look easy. They had the material. All they had to do was create magic and that’s what they did.

The key to most great written works is the backstory. This is where you mold the characters and give them a personality. If you scrimp on this through development your story will suffer.

An idea for an original story is your seedling. You plant it in your computer and water it by giving it a name. It percolates like a whispering coffeemaker. A few characters are added. Who are these people? Where did they come from? Do you have a family, husband, wife, kids, parents or other relatives? What about a dog, cat or bird? The story is in California, but is that where the characters were born? What about traveling the world or beginning life out of the country? What about friends or drinking partners? Are they sexually active? Do they have a dark past? This all falls into the backstory category. Without it, there is no body for the work to build from.

Have you written an idea and now it sits there as a lost child in need of direction? It happens to all writers and it’s not exactly writers block – it’s a story that jumped tracks and is going in a different direction than first started. Frustration stops you and kills the story. It goes into the filing cabinet or story folder on an external drive. You may visit it from time to time or forget it was ever written. You move on.

Wait a minute! What if that simple idea is a great one? What if the underbelly of the story not only grows muscular legs – it can run the mile faster than anyone else?  If you don’t go back for a second or tenth look, you’ll never know.

If I’m not goofing around in front or behind the camera or writing another work, I spend time helping others locate the ground beneath their dancing fingers. If I can help you, let me know.

William Byron Hillman © 2016

Visit my revised web site www.williamhillman.com
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