Sunday, November 30, 2008

Getting started

This evening I watched Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny.

For the first ten minutes I was all "What the fuck is this shit?" I like Meatloaf and all, but the movie was ridiculous at first. And then when the pick came into the story it got a lot better.

The songs got better, the plot got better, the jokes got better.

It's the Napoleon Dynamite syndrome - let's just tell some silly jokes and then some time we'll eventually get around to telling a story. Too much time spent on setup and not enough time spent on the plot.

I've been thinking about that a lot today because I did a major rewrite of the zombie script this weekend and one of the issues I've been having is after my kickass violent opening, I spend a lot of time on killing grandma before I get to the actual inciting incident. I decided not to kill grandma until later so I could move up my core problem, but that still left me with some important setup.

I can still cut more if I have to, but I feel like the family dynamic that affects the rest of the story needs to be established early. Plus, I kind of packed an action scene like every thirty seconds, so the brief moment in the beginning where nobody is shouting or hacking at body parts is a deep breath to preface my awesome action thrill ride, complete with tidal wave.

After I cut and moved grandma around I ended up with my inciting incident on page 14.

I've never been a big formula person, so I'd never say I should have a certain page for a certain event. There's a woman at work who does that - she keeps talking about how she put a plot device on page whatever and a turn of events on this other page, just like Syd Field says you're supposed to, but nobody wants to read her script.

I should also add that this woman has connections coming out of her ass and still nobody wants to read her script. Lady, that should tell you something about your current talent level.

Anyhow, What do you guys think? How soon in your script do you usually like to start the events rolling? Can you think of any movies that did a good job getting things started quickly but without feeling like you're missing something? Let's have some dialogue.


  1. "How soon in your script do you usually like to start the events rolling?"

    Page 1. Not just being a smart ass. I like to grab the reader by the short hairs within my first paragraph. If I get an ADHD reader, and he's bored within the first page, that's my fault.

    Not saying it has to be a huge action sequence. But something (a line of dialogue, a clever way of introducing a character, something, anything) has to propel them onto page 2. Nothing should feel like it's obligatory, like it's just there to feed us plot and backstory. The backstory and plot should be as interesting as the action sequences.

    As for technical terms like inciting incidents, I don't worry about them falling on this page or that page. Formula will choke the life out of a script, as you explained well with the lady at your school. Awesome shit should be happening on every page, not just page 10.

    I think Fight Club is a movie that instantly involves you. Bam, the movie starts and our hero has a gun in his mouth. His voiceover work is brilliant, no human being could stop the movie right there. They'd have to know what comes next.

  2. Usually, the good action and adventure movies get things going quickly. The really good ones are able to show characterization and / or exposition during the action scenes. If I remember correctly, Lethal Weapon and Raiders of the Lost Ark both got things going pretty quickly. There are a number of ideas on where certain elements should go in a script. "Save the Cat" (by Blake Snyder) says the theme should be stated by page 5. In my UCLA screenwriting class, the instructor made no such claim about where the theme should be. However, the general ideas for screenwriting seem to be the same. I think as long as you follow the general rules of screenwriting and have a good concept and a script that reads well, then you have a decent shot at doing something with the script. And note, when I say it needs to read well, I'm not just referring to three-act structure and having all the key screenwriting elements, the script needs to flow well, be engaging, be interesting, As for your friend, who can't get her script read, despite having lots of contacts, I would venture to guess, her story idea is bad and /or not sellable. Or possibly she's a very pedestrian writer.

    Steven Lee

  3. I think just about any movie that starts at the denouement and then flashes back does a good job by cheating. The inciting incident will usually come later in those films, but the opening foreshadows it.

    Action movies on the Bond model (The Dark Knight falls loosely into this category) also manage to push the inciting incident back later by having an unrelated, or tangentially related action set piece to open.

    Otherwise, I'd strive to hit that 10-12 page mark as best you can, not because I believe in strict formulas, but because a lot of readers do. I'd have to noodle on it a bit more to think of a movie that didn't follow one of the cheats above but incited really early. I'm quite sure they're out there.

  4. I chose my words poorly. I don't mean when should you get EVENTS rolling, I meant when do you get the PLOT rolling?

  5. Nah. I think you were clear. At least I understood. I just did a crappy job answering. ;)

    I think my point about the denouement -> flashback holds, though. Those movies really are starting off with big plot right on page one and then once they jump can take a bit longer to get back into it. But they've led with plot.

  6. Sixth Sense starts with a "bang" in the first few minutes and then carries the story on until the revelation at the last few minutes. Yes, every thing else that M. Night did has been crap but that one was brilliant.

  7. Emily:

    You can usually start your plot somewhere between page 1 and 15. However, you usually need some kind of exposition before your plot really begins so things make sense and / or have more depth. However, this exposition can be done in a very exciting way. For example...

    If you watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, the opening action sequence is exciting, but also gives you a lot of information, both big and small. One big piece of info -- you know who Indiana Jones' nemesis is. One small piece of info -- you learn he hates snakes which is paid off later. You also learn a little about their character.

    Now, if you can tie this kind of action sequence with your plot, then I would guess that would be even better.

    Steven Lee

  8. Anonymous5:35 PM

    Shoot em Up -- BANG, right off the first page it slams into the action, and by the time you asked yourself "who the hell is this guy? where did he come from? how did he learn those shooting skills?" you pretty much forget and go with the flow

  9. I think the thing I liked most about "I Am Legend" was how it got straight into the story, while in bits and spurts doled out the backstory. The opening didn't have to be "BLAM POW BANG BOOM!!!" But it did have to catch your attention - a desolate, decaying Manhattan left to go feral, then a sports car tearing through the streets, leading up to Neville competing with lions for a deer he was stalking. We don't learn about the core of what's happening for a while - it gradually unspools for us - but your attention has been captured in the first few minutes.

    At least, that's my opinion.

    So, maybe you'd start your zombie story with (and I'm just guessing here, since I don't know your script from the Times crossword puzzle) a bunch of empty streets, a bad-ass looking "Battle Wagon" of a car driving through them, and, as they turn a corner towards, say, a football field, it's teeming with zombies, providing them ample targets for vehicular destruction. Maybe you can even have a wise-ass character in improvised body armor (mismatched sports gear) whacking heads like he was playing "mailbox baseball".

    OK, that's too over the top... Stick closer to Will Smith's movie... No, you don't have to give away all the marbles (like I did!), but you can do a piece of incidental action in an unusual-though-unsettlingly-familiar setting that jerks the audience to attention, then spill the whole story out a piece at a time, backstory combined with current story, so they're understanding the world while experiencing it over time, building the excitement and anticipation.

  10. Anonymous9:18 AM

    I'm not sure what you mean by "when does the PLOT start", because the plot should, indeed, start on page 1 or 2. Even if your inciting incident occurs on page 14, something on page 1 should be setting it up, not just from a thematic/character perspective but from a plot perspective as well.

    The script I'm currently working on, the inciting incident is all the way back at page 22. I'm fairly certain that's too late, although there a pre-inciting incident on page 14 and the ten pages before it take place in a strip club, so I may be able to get away with it. Rest assured, though, it is something I plan on revisiting in full force when I come back for draft 2 or 3.


Please leave a name, even if it's a fake name. And try not to be an asshole.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.