Writing the Short Film
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Writing the Short Film

Patricia Cooper, Ken Dancyger

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eBook - ePub

Writing the Short Film

Patricia Cooper, Ken Dancyger

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About This Book

The short film is a unique narrative art form that, while lending itself to experimentation, requires tremendous discipline in following traditional filmic considerations. This book takes the student and novice screenwriter through the storytelling process- from conception, to visualization, to dramatization, to characterization and dialogue- and teaches them how to create a dramatic narrative that is at once short (approximately half an hour in length) and complete. Exercises, new examples of short screenplays, and an examination of various genres round out the discussion.NEW TO THE THIRD EDITION: new screenplays, a chapter on rewriting your script, and a chapter on the future of short films

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PART I Fundamentals Breaking Ground

Storytelling in General

DOI: 10.4324/9780080492476-1
Anyone who has ever been confronted by a small child’s searching gaze or seen an infant gulp down its surroundings with its eyes (Where am I? Who are you? What’s going on here?) will recognize that from early in their lives, human beings have an intense need to understand the world around them, to make sense of things. Inventing and embellishing stories are ways to satisfy that need; the first stories human beings told themselves and one another were about how everything in the world came into being, how things came to be the way they are.

A Working Definition

For the purposes of this book, which deals with writing the short screenplay of 30 minutes’ length or less, we will define a story as any narration of events or incidents that relates how something happened to someone. The “someone” will be considered the main character of a story, and if the element of causality is added to the telling of how something happened to that character, the story will be considered to have a plot. In his book Aspects of the Novel, novelist E. M. Forster gives a succinct example of this process: “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a statement. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.”1 In general, the short screenplay, like the short story, works best when its plot is uncomplicated, when we are given a glimpse of someone at a particular—very likely pivotal—moment in his or her life, a moment when an incident or a simple choice sets in motion a chain of events.

What Stories Can Do

From early on in our history, stories have offered us alternative ways of experiencing the world. Huddled in the dark about a fire or in the heat of a marketplace, seated at a great lord’s table or in the darkness of a movie theater, we drink up stories about the marvelous or terrifying or comical experiences of other human beings. We participate in the adventures of heroes and heroines, whether they are called Achilles or Michael Corleone, Little Red Riding Hood or Dorothy of Kansas. The most important factor in making it possible for a narrative to entertain, as well as to instruct or inspire us, is our ability to project ourselves into characters, whether imaginary or “real.” It is to this ability that Paul Zweig refers when he writes, “To enter a story one must give up being oneself for a while.”2
A universal longing to hear about the lives of others seems to be as strong in our own time as in the past. In industrialized countries, at least, it is no longer the oral or printed word that is the primary medium for storytelling, but the film or television screen. At home, we catch bits and pieces of other people’s lives as they are offered on newscasts and two-minute, “in-depth” portraits; we find ourselves held captive by the relentlessly predictable narratives of situation comedies, police procedurals, or search-and-rescue docudramas. Although, as an educated audience, we complain about the dull and repetitive scriptwriting and the lack of variety in programming, we continue to watch faithfully week after week, even year after year, in our hunger for stories.
In The Poetics, his great manual on how to write a play, the philosopher Aristotle said, “Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity…. The cause of this again is that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general.”3
A biologist as well as a philosopher, and a close observer of human behavior on stage and off, Aristotle was interested not only in the Greek tragedies themselves but in the reactions of their audiences. He goes on to say that for an audience, the pleasure of recognition is to “grasp and understand.” Like those Athenian audiences 23 centuries ago, audiences today long to grasp and understand something of the human condition.

Fairy Tale, Myth, and Genre in Film

The early myths of any tribe usually tell about ways in which human beings are affected by the actions of a god or gods, while its fairy tales and legends are apt to describe ways in which human beings are affected by more earthy aspects of the supernatural—say witches, giants, trolls, talking animals, or magical objects. In both, feelings and thoughts are externalized and given substance, which is undoubtedly why mythmaking of a sort has been an important part of narrative filmmaking from its early days until the present.
Just as oral myths and fairy tales changed over the years in the process of being passed from one storyteller to the next, so the myths in genre film have gradually been transformed by writers and directors. It can be instructive to trace the line of descent from a one-dimensional hero like Tom Mix in crude early Westerns to the comical, reluctant hero played by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven; or the gradual transformation of the pint-sized innocent played by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, struggling with a machine as ruthless and powerful as any giant, into the scrawny sophisticate played by Woody Allen in Annie Hall, trying to master an evil-looking lobster; or the evolution over the years of the rigorous, if unconventional, code of honor of private-eye Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon to the code of resolute self-interest practiced by private investigator Jake Gittes in Chinatown. In most cases, the archetypal form of the story remains, while the meaning of the underlying myth changes in response to the pressure of changes in society.
To reflect such changes successfully, screenwriters need to be familiar with the classic films of the genre in which they choose to work. This is as true of writing parody—a favorite of film students—as it is of using any other style that deals with inherited material.
It happens that the two structures that have proved most useful in shaping material for a short screenplay are those considered by scholars to be the very oldest of narrative forms: the journey, and what we call the ritual occasion. If you have a main character clearly in mind, and a good idea of what that character’s situation is and of what it is that he or she is after, you can often get a script off to a good start simply by choosing one or the other of these as a structure for your story line and seeing where it takes you.

Examples of the Journey Structure

Two award-winning student shorts from New York University that use this structure to very different ends are Going to Work in the Morning from Brooklyn, written and directed by Phillip Messina, and Champion, written and directed by Jeffrey D. Brown.
Going to Work in the Morning from Brooklyn tells the story of a man who absolutely does not want to go to work, although he knows he must. We follow him in his anguished, comical struggle to get out of bed, into a suit and tie, out the door, and onto the Manhattan-bound subway. We feel his despair while we laugh at his actions: the film successfully walks a fine line between comedy and drama.
At one point the main character, standing miserably in the packed train, glances about him and meets the eyes of an attractive woman sitting opposite. When she looks away, he surreptitiously studies her. She catches him at it, tosses her head, and frowns; he shifts his eyes, muttering a protest to himself. They both get out at the next stop and wait on the subway platform to change trains.
There the man finds a gum machine that accepts his coin but doesn’t deliver; in frustration, he smacks it hard and is amazed and delighted when a stick of gum drops into his hand. He smiles then for the first time and unwraps the gum to pop it into his mouth. Looking at himself in the mirror of the machine, he notices the woman behind him, watching with a little smile. At that moment we feel, as we can see he feels, a lift of the heart: maybe—just maybe—his luck will change.
The remainder of the film shows us his funny, clumsy failed pursuit of the woman and his despairing arrival, at last, at the busy, factory-like office where he puts in his daily eight hours. The story of an ordinary workday has become a kind of archetypal journey.
Champion tells the story of a comical young man who falls in love with a pretty jogger at the reservoir in New York City’s Central Park. In the beginning of the film, we watch him debate hurtling a wooden barrier at the entrance to the park, then decide to go around it instead. On an esplanade overlooking the reservoir—clearly his regular warm-up place—he finds a lithe young woman doing stretching exercises. Dazzled by her, he picks a spot close by to do the same, mirroring her every move. When she sets off around the reservoir at a leisurely jog, he follows at a discreet distance. Obstacles are everywhere—a nasty child on a tricycle, a group of junior high school students playing ferocious football, and so on. Eventually he falls through a gaping hole in a pedestrian bridge and loses sight of her, although he limps gallantly on, peering all around.
The next morning, the main character is at the warm-up place at (literally) cock’s crow, waiting for her. At last the young woman arrives, warms up, and once more sets off at an easy pace, with the shy hero lagging behind. Then, completely unaware, she drops the scarf she is wearing; he picks it up, strokes it tenderly, and begins to run flat out after her. But as he overtakes her, he loses his nerve and continues on, scarf in hand, to become entangled with a ragged group of runners heading toward the finish line in a race. In the end, he finds a way to return the scarf without directly confronting her. When she looks around and smiles to herself, we feel, as he feels, that she knows who has put the scarf on her bike—and that there is always tomorrow. As the film ends, the main character approaches the barricade once again, boldly leaps over it, and jogs off to the sound of Irish martial music. The story of a couple of ordinary runs has become an archetypal journey of the smitten lover pursuing his or her beloved.
It is worth noting that Champion, while similar in structure to Going to Work in the Morning from Brooklyn, and concerned with a similar theme, is completely different both in its main character and in what the philosopher Susanne Langer has called “feeling” and “feeling-tone.”
Langer writes, “A work of art is an expressive form created for our perception through sense or imagination, and what it expresses is human feeling. The word feeling must be taken here in its broadest sense, meaning everything that can be felt … [including] the steady feeling-tones of human life.”4

Examples of the Ritual Occasion Structure

Sleeping Beauties (see Appendix B for script) is the story of two sisters, aged 15 and 16, who find that the imaginary male dream-figure they have created between them has come to life.
In this film, the arrival of a stranger who conforms to the imaginary lover created by two sisters triggers the ritual occasion—in this case, a “coming of age”—around which the film revolves. Unlike many such stories, the main character in this one rejects the opportunity offered, suffering accordingly when the younger sister seizes it.
Another film, Gare du Nord, written and directed by noted ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch, uses the same structure to explore a very different territory. It is one of an anthology of six short films made by European directors, each set in a different section of Paris.
Gare du Nord opens with a young couple squabbling as they get dressed for work in a tiny apartment in a noisy high-rise. As they bicker their way through breakfast, we learn that the attractive wife is unhappy with the apartment; unhappy with her lumpish, complacent husband; and in despair about the dull routine of their life together. We realize that she is a romantic who dreams of ...

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