Secrets of Blockbuster Movies Part III - Obstacles

Posted by John Truby on

In past articles, we've talked about the story elements found in most blockbuster films. But what about the obstacles that prevent us from writing a hit film? I'm referring to the misconceptions many writers carry with them that make it almost impossible for them to write a successful script.

One especially egregious myth that kills writers is the idea that their script will succeed if only they get the right agent or make the right contact. We all know that thousands of scripts are written every year. So we think the answer to winning this intense competition is to get special access to the powers that make the films.

Makes a lot of sense. But it's dead wrong. The vast majority of scripts fail because they are not good enough scripts, which means that your main competition is not with the fifty thousand other writers who will write a script this year. Your main competition is with yourself. If you master all the skills that go into great fiction writing, you will get access to every studio in Hollywood. If you don't, the best access in the world won't make a bit of difference.

Want to hear another truth that may shock you? 99% of writers fail at the premise. As you probably know, the premise is your story stated in one line. The premise is the core of the script. Everything else depends on it. You can create a great hero, write scintillating dialogue, weave in a deep theme. But if you choose the wrong premise, or fail to develop it properly, none of that will matter.

I can't tell you how many times I've seen writers start with a great idea, or more often, the makings of a great idea, and ruin it. Here a little knowledge often wreaks havoc. We've talked before about how dependent a blockbuster movie is on the 'high concept' premise, the catchy, highly marketable idea that makes an audience want to come to the theater even though they haven't seen the movie yet.

What most writers don't know is that the 'high concept' premise will kill you if you don't know what you're doing. Why? Because a high concept premise typically gives you only two good scenes, which are the scenes before and after the 'high concept' kicks in.

That often leaves you with 100 minutes where nothing is happening! You have to develop the premise so that the high concept is played out dramatically and structurally throughout the entire script. And that is done primarily through the opposition and the theme.

Let me give you an example. There have been scores of 'switch' comedies over the years. A character flips bodies or changes identity and then struggles to make the change work.

These movies are all high concept premises. And almost all of them bomb at the box office. One of the few switch comedies that was a blockbuster hit, both commercially and critically, was 'Tootsie.' Sure, we've got the great switch scenes where Dustin Hoffman is suddenly breezing down Broadway in a dress and heels, and then accosts his agent at lunch in his new disguise.

But what made that film so successful was that the writers knew how to extend the high concept through deep structure. They created a set of opponents who relentlessly attacked the hero's deep need in a different way. And the plot played out a larger theme of how men often treat women.

Developing a hit premise involves a number of steps. First and foremost is taking the time up front to extend the line of the idea so you can see what the probable structural roadblocks are. To a trained eye, a premise line will immediately suggest deep-seated structural obstacles that you will have to overcome to make the idea work. Perhaps the desire line is weak. Or you may have trouble spotting the natural opponent.

The point is to uncover these roadblocks when you have only written one sentence instead of after you have written a full script.

Here's another fact that may surprise you. The typical 100-page script has only about 50 pages of story. Obviously, that means you have 50-plus pages of padding, and that script won't sell.

There are many reasons why writers radically over-estimate the strength of their story. One is that most writers still rely on the old 3-act structure method to construct their plot. I refer to 3-act structure as the Training Wheels School of Drama. It's great when you're a beginner intimidated by the thought of writing your first script. But if you want to ride' faster than two miles an hour, if you want to compete professionally, you need to get rid of those training wheels and use plotting techniques that produce a much denser plot.

Another reason writers over-estimate their story is that they underestimate plot. I believe plotting is the most underestimated of all the major story-telling skills. If you ask most writers where they put their emphasis they will tell you either character or dialogue. They figure plot is something they know how to do naturally.

In fact, plot requires a very advanced set of skills that the vast majority of writers don't know. Plot comes from the choreography between hero and opponent, and the intricacies come from how you weave the various opponents as they attack your hero.

Which leads me to another one of those misconceptions about writing that kills writers. Have you ever noticed how many writers say, 'I'm having second act problems'? If everyone is having second act problems, doesn't that tell you right away that this method of dividing up a script is useless when it comes to actually writing it?

But the bigger problem with this comment is that it's simply wrong. Sure, you may have all kinds of problems in the middle pages of your script (vaguely known as the 'second act'). But I guarantee you that 90% of the time the SOURCE of those problems is found in the opening pages of your script.

If you don't know how to set up a story, and if you are looking in the wrong place to fix the weaknesses, you're going to have 'second act problems' for a long time.

Here's another one of my favorite misconceptions about writing; How many times have you heard someone say, usually in deeply reverential tones, 'Writing is rewriting'?

Whenever I hear this old chestnut, I'm always tempted to ask, 'If you were building a house, would you say that building is rebuilding?' The big problem with this idea is that it seduces writers into thinking they will fix their story weaknesses in the rewrite. They fail to do the hard, up front story work and then find that work is much harder to do once the story is embedded in a 120-page script.

The other problem with this approach to writing is that it ignores a shocking fact: most second drafts are worse than the first. If you think this only happens to you, think again. It's a dirty little secret in the scriptwriting world, and it is the source of huge frustration for writers. Not only do they fall into a cycle of endless rewrites, they get depressed that things are actually getting worse.

Why does this happen? Most writers do not know how to rewrite. (Yes, rewriting does have to be done). Just as some writing processes are better than others, so are some rewriting processes. One crucial technique is knowing the right SEQUENCE for rewriting. For example, the first thing most writers fix in the rewrite is dialogue. It should be the last. One simple reason for this is that when you begin by fixing the structural weaknesses, you often cut out entire scenes and the dialogue that goes with them.

I could go on and on because the misconceptions about writing are endless. Fiction writing is about solving life problems, so it's much easier for people to think about writing in grandiose terms and phrases that don't mean anything.

But fiction writing is above all a craft. It has many very specific techniques that produce the powerful emotional effects you want in the audience. Writing a blockbuster screenplay is never easy. But if you do a spring cleaning on those old misconceptions and focus on the real craft, you have a much better chance of writing something that will go all the way.

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