Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: screenwriting (page 1 of 3)

Foundations of Storytelling, Part 1: The Logline

This is the first post in an occasional series.

With the Second World War looming, a daring archaeologist-adventurer is tasked by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant—a Biblical artifact of invincible power, lost for millennia in the desert sands of Egypt—before it can be acquired by the Nazis.

On Christmas Eve, an off-duty police officer is inadvertently ensnared in a life-or-death game of cat-and-mouse in an L.A. skyscraper when his wife’s office party is taken hostage by a dozen armed terrorists.

Over the Fourth of July holiday, a resort-island sheriff finds himself in deep water—literally—when his beach is stalked by an aggressive great white shark that won’t go away.

All of the above story concepts should sound familiar—that’s why I chose them.  Yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, and Jaws are all popular—now classic—works of commercial cinema.  But they are also excellent exemplars of storytelling at their most basic, macrostructural levels, as demonstrated by the catchy summaries above, known in Hollywood as “the logline.”

When a single image, let alone a single sentence, imparts the essence of a story, the underlying concept is a powerful, primal one

 

THE LOGLINE AS A SELLING TOOL

The logline is a sales pitch:  In a single compact sentence, it conveys the protagonist (respectively:  the adventurous archaeologist; the off-duty cop; the beach-resort sheriff), the antagonist (the Nazis; the terrorists; the shark), the conflict and stakes (possession of the Ark for control of the world; the confined life-and-death struggle; the destruction of a man-eating leviathan), the setting (1930s Egypt; an L.A. skyscraper at Christmas; a summer resort), and the tone/genre (action/adventure; action-thriller; adventure/horror).  You can even reasonably glean the Save the Cat! category of each:

  • Raiders as Golden Fleece (Subgenre:  “Epic Fleece”)
  • Die Hard as Dude with a Problem (“Law Enforcement Problem”)
  • Jaws as Monster in the House (“Pure Monster”)

A cogent synopsis like any of the above allows a prospective buyer to “see” the creative vision for the movie, ideally triggering the three-word response every screenwriter longs to hear:  “Tell me more.”

Note what isn’t included in the logline:  The names of any of the characters.  Thematic concerns.  Emotional arcs.  Subplots.  Descriptions of particular set pieces.  That’s the “tell me more” stuff, and none of it is necessary—it is, in fact, needlessly extraneous—for the “elevator pitch,” so called for the brief window one has to hook to an exec before he steps off onto his floor (read:  loses interest).  The point of a logline is to communicate the story’s most fundamental aspects, and to capture what’s viscerally exciting about the premise.

I mean, if you’d never seen Raiders, Die Hard, or Jaws—if you knew nothing else about them other than the information contained in those loglines—you’d already have a sense of why these are, or could at least make for, gripping stories.  Pitch any one of them to a movie executive, and he can immediately envision the scenes—or at least the potential for them—suggested by the central premise.  Each one piques curiosity and, one step further, inspires the imagination.

The Raiders logline is so compelling because it takes (what was at the time) an arcane scholarly discipline, archaeology, and credibly applies it to an action-film archetype, typically the province of superspies like 007.  It also features historical elements that don’t seem like they should belong together—Nazis and Biblical relics—to envision something simultaneously smart and thrilling.

The Die Hard and Jaws loglines are exciting because they take their police-officer protagonists and essentially reduce them to “everyman” status (unlike Raiders, which features a specialist as its hero) by putting them in overwhelmingly harrowing situations that play to some of our most primal fears:  terrorism and sharks.  In short, they have that compelling What if? factor.

That’s how those stories got sold, and how the movies themselves got made.  We don’t need any information beyond what we get in those loglines to want to see the finished product.  As such, condensing a story to its logline is an absolutely essential skill for any screenwriter.

Let me amend that:  It is an essential skill for all storytellers, novelists included—perhaps especially.  And its applications are far broader than simply marketing.

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Writing as Fast as I Can: On Time Management and Working More Efficiently

For the better part of the past decade, my wife and I have both worked out of our home.  This is a great setup if you can get it, especially in Los Angeles, where the perpetually logjammed freeways have been known to erode the sanity of many a daily commuter.  During business hours, we essentially treat one another like cubicle mates, pausing to chat every so often over coffee, but basically respecting one another’s need to prioritize work—something made easier owed to the positioning of our desks at opposite ends of the apartment.

After her company was recently acquired, however, the wife started working out of a central office again.  It’s a reasonably short subway ride away, so at least it isn’t a “killer commute,” though it has been an adjustment—for both of us.  Speaking strictly for myself, I discovered in short order that many of the domestic duties we’d shared—be it walking the dog, making the bed, running laundry, buying groceries—were now falling, to a necessarily greater extent, on me.  This isn’t a complaint, mind you—I still had the better end of the deal in that I continued to work from home, with all the freedom and flexibility that entails.  But there’s no doubt I found myself in the throes of a time-management crisis, as days and sometimes weeks would pass without any appreciable progress—or any progress at all—on my manuscript.  I was overwhelmed by all the shit that had to get tended to just to keep the household running.

Quick digression (and I promise it’s relevant):  Anyone who’s followed this blog for any amount of time knows I’m a guy’s guy.  I’ve written odes to 24, Rambo, Heat, the Dark Knight trilogy, Rush (the Canadian prog-rock band that, by its own admission, doesn’t inspire overwhelming female devotion), mob movies, and the cinema of horror maestros Wes Craven and John Carpenter, the latter of whom trades in tough guys like Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken and James Woods’ Jack Crow.  For that matter, my forthcoming novel, Escape from Rikers Island, is populated almost entirely with alpha males, inspired in part by the crime fiction of Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and Richard Price.  Hell, at my last checkup, my doctor informed me I have the testosterone of an eighteen-year-old.  Like I said:  guy’s guy—now medically validated.

James Woods as monster hunter Jack Crow in John Carpenter’s “Vampires”

I’m secure enough, then, to confess I have a softer side, too.  I’ve waxed analytical about Katniss Everdeen and Jane the Virgin and the addictive melodramas of Shonda Rhimes, as well as professed my undying love for Dirty Dancing on more than one occasion (like here and here).  I’m hooked on Fixer Upper and the interior-design wizardry of Joanna Gaines.  And my favorite show of all time—seventeen years and running—is Gilmore Girls, and it doesn’t get more girly than Gilmore—“Girls” is right there in the title!  Last year, the long-awaited return of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo didn’t hold a candle, in my view, to the overdue encore of Lorelai and Rory; I would willingly and happily trade every future Star Wars movie for more Gilmore.

So it was for that reason I picked up a copy of Lauren Graham’s new memoir Talking as Fast as I Can a few months ago.  I’d hoped to get insight into the development and production of the Gilmore revival A Year in the Lifeand the book doesn’t disappoint in that regard—but the last thing I expected was a practical, step-by-step solution to my time-management problems… though that’s exactly what I found.

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This Counts, That Does Not: On Canonicity in Media Franchises

It may surprise you to learn this, but the events of Star Wars never actually happened—the majority of them, anyway.  I mean that sincerely—not for a minute should that be interpreted as snide or condescending.  But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…

In 1983, George Lucas brought his Star Wars trilogy to a close with Return of the Jedi (oh, those bygone days when movie franchises actually reached—wait for it—a conclusive resolution).  Throughout the eighties, the series lived on by way of a pair of made-for-television Ewok movies and the Saturday-morning cartoons Droids and Ewoks, which continued to stoke interest in the franchise—and its lucrative action-figure line… for a while.  But by the end of the decade, with no new big-screen productions to energize the fan base, Star Wars had resigned its position at the top of the pop-cultural hierarchy.

George Lucas looks to the horizon

Lucas, who had always been a forward-thinking businessman as much as he was a visionary filmmaker (he negotiated a reduced fee for writing and directing the original Star Wars in return for ownership of sequel and merchandising rights, which the studio deemed worthless and was only too happy to relinquish), had plans to revisit the Star Wars galaxy in a prequel trilogy that had been part of his grand design when he was developing the earlier films—hence the reason, in case you never thought to ask, they are numbered Episodes IV through VI.  Even though the prequels themselves were some years off—production on The Phantom Menace wouldn’t commence until 1997—he began laying the groundwork to return Star Wars to its lofty place in the cultural consciousness by commissioning science-fiction author Timothy Zahn to write a trio of novels set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi—what later became commonly known as “the Thrawn trilogy” (named for its chief antagonist).

The books were released successively in ’91, ’92, and ’93 (my best friend Chip and I couldn’t get down to the local bookstore fast enough to buy a copy of each upon publication, though being a year older, he got to read them first); they were New York Times bestsellers that not only got their intended job done—reigniting public interest in a dormant media franchise—but also led to an endless, ongoing series of novels that explored every facet of the Star Wars galaxy:  No character or event was too small to be the focus of its own story.  Thus, the Star Wars Expanded Universe (SWEU) was born.  Han and Leia had twins!  Luke got married!  Chewbacca sacrificed himself for the Solos’ son Anakin!  A universe of stories, far beyond the contained narrative arc of the classic trilogy, took on a life of its own and captured the imagination of a generation that invested itself in the ongoing space opera collectively known as Star Warsa vast, complex continuity that Lucasfilm maintained with curatorial oversight to prevent inconsistencies and contradictions in the expansive mythos, which comprised movies, books, comics, TV shows, RPGs, and video games.

The Force awakens? For many fans, it never went dormant

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, however, they had their own ambitious plans to expand the franchise, and didn’t want to be tied down to every addenda in the extensive mythology.  And just like that, everything other than the feature films and then-current Clone Wars animated series was “retconned”—still commercially available, mind you, under the new “Legends” banner, but henceforth declared noncanonical.  This was an outrage to many of the longtime fans who considered these “expanded universe” adventures sacrosanct—who’d invested time, money, and interest in the world-building fictions of the Star Wars continuity that had been undone with the stroke of a hand.  Some of their favorite stories were now apocrypha, whereas the much-derided prequels, on the other hand, were still canonically official.  Where was the justice—the sense—in that?

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Classifying the “Star Trek” Movies by Their “Save the Cat!” Genre Categories

Star Trek turned fifty this year (something older than me, mercifully), but you needn’t be a fan to appreciate some of the lessons writers of fiction can take from its successes and failures during its five-decade voyage.  I mean, I probably wouldn’t myself qualify as a “Trekkie”—I simply don’t get caught up in the minutiae.  What I’ve always responded to in Trek is its thoughtful storytelling and philosophical profundity.  “Even the original series, for all its chintziness,” someone told me when I was thirteen, “it was still the thinking man’s show.”

I recall watching The Original Series in syndication, and being swept away by the classic time-travel episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”; finally I understood that Trek was about ideas, and those could be just as thrilling—more so, in fact—than set pieces.  Anyone who was around for it certainly remembers the excitement when The Next Generation premiered, unknowingly kicking off perhaps the first major-media “shared fictional universe” two decades before Marvel got there.  I watched the pilot with my father—which was a big deal, since television wasn’t his thing (the nightly news excepting)—and I haven’t forgotten his lovely, two-word appraisal of the first episode when it was over:  “It’s kind,” he said, with no further elaboration.

It took some years to fully appreciate that assessment.  Having grown up on the adventures of James T. Kirk, the original captain’s renegade spirit and cowboy diplomacy appealed to my juvenile worldview; Picard, on the other hand, seemed like a high-school principal in comparison.  But over time, I came to identify with Picard’s genteel, introspective mindset, and every line he uttered—even the technobabble—sounded like poetry from the mouth of Patrick Stewart, who endowed his performance with such dignity and conviction.  For me, the best part of Star Trek was getting Picard’s closing takeaway on the issue du jour.

The franchise continued to grow as I did, and my wife, whom I started dating at nineteen, was as much a fan as I was, it turned out, and we looked forward every few years to the next feature film, until the series finally, against all expectation, sputtered out with Nemesis (2002) and Enterprise (2001–2005).  Among other reasons for that, Trek had been eclipsed by a new sci-fi franchise—The Matrix—that spoke to the ethos of our new Digital Age.  Perhaps more than any other genre, science fiction needs to reflect its times, and times change; finality is something to be accepted—embraced, even—not feared.  The Enterprise, thusly, had been decommissioned.

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Collapse of the Tentpole: Why Hollywood’s Grim Summer Is Good News for the Rest of Us

Hope springs eternal—and by that I mean it was just this past spring I was lamenting Hollywood’s hopeless addiction to nostalgic, twentieth-century brands, from superheroes to Star Wars, and its incorrigible aversion to original genre works in favor of endless sequels and remakes (I will not cave to social pressure by calling them “reboots” just to assuage the egos of filmmakers too precious to be considered slumming with the likes of—heaven forbid—a remake).  And yet…

And yet what a difference a summer can make.  Let’s review the scorecard, shall we?

Batman v Superman took a critical beating (to say the least) and, despite sizable box-office returns, underperformed to expectations, an inauspicious opening salvo in Warners’ would-be mega-franchise (and something tells me, no matter how tepid the public response, they’re not going to take “no” for an answer on this one).  The follow-up, Suicide Squad, performed well even if it didn’t fare any better critically, though one could argue both movies actually did the health of the budding cinematic universe more harm than good in that they tarnished the integrity, such as it is, of the brand; DC is thus far not enjoying Marvel’s critical or popular cachet.  And you don’t build an ongoing franchise playing only to the base.

Other expensive underperformers:  Warcraft; X-Men:  Apocalypse; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  Out of the Shadows; Neighbors 2:  Sorority Rising; Star Trek BeyondJason Bourne opened well but suffered a steep second-week drop-off—it had no “legs,” in box-office parlance.

Who ya gonna call to exterminate the "ghosts" of a previous generation haunting the multiplex?

Who ya gonna call to exterminate the “ghosts” of a previous generation haunting the multiplex?

Plenty of other “surefire” sequels outright bombed:  Alice Through the Looking Glass, Ghostbusters (not a sequel, but it was promoted as one), The Huntsman:  Winter’s War, Zoolander 2, Independence Day:  Resurgence, and The Divergent Series:  Allegiant, the last of which has resulted in a particularly embarrassing—and unprecedented—predicament for its studio, Lionsgate, which, following in the footsteps of previous YA adaptations Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, unnecessarily split the last movie into two parts, and now they’re stuck with a commitment to a final sequel (or half of one, anyway) without an audience anticipating its release.

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“I Heard You Were Dead”: What the Career of John Carpenter Demonstrates about the Nature of Legacy

I write all my fiction to movie soundtracks.  Instrumentals only—lyrics in my ear are too distracting while I’m trying to compose words, and I usually wind up tuning that noise out entirely, in which case:  What’s the point?  At the beginning of a project, I’ll choose a good mix of selections from movies that represent the tone or theme I’m going for, then compile a playlist that cycles in the background—turned up just enough to register but not actively listen to—for as long as it takes to complete the manuscript; that playlist serves as an aural compass, or “temp track,” keeping me in touch with what the world I’m creating should look and sound like at all times.

Just the other week, I finished the first draft of what will be my debut novel, Escape from Rikers Island.  The influences on EFRI are too numerous to quantify, but include novelists Richard Price and Elmore Leonard, as well as filmmaker John Carpenter.  In both title and premise, Escape from Rikers Island owes a great creative debt to Carpenter’s exploitation thrillers Escape from New York and Assault on Precinct 13.  His movies, love ‘em or otherwise, have a look and feel all their own, owed in part to his eerie, synth-driven soundtracks; he is one of very few directors who’s scored most of his own movies, so writing EFRI to his music seemed like a no-brainer.

As fate would have it, right around the time I began the draft, Carpenter released his first album of original material, Lost Themes, so EFRI got a soundtrack of its very own, with music I now almost exclusively associate with my work of fiction rather than any specific film of his.  One of the cuts, “Vortex,” even became, to my mind, the novel’s unofficial theme song:

John Carpenter is touring this summer to promote Lost Themes and its just-released follow-up, Lost Themes II, and I went to see him perform last month at the Orpheum Theatre here in Los Angeles with my friend and fellow horror enthusiast Adam Aresty.  Adam is a burgeoning master of horror himself, having written the literal bee movie Stung (now streaming on Netflix), the chilling short story “Recovery” (which evokes—and I mean this as the highest compliment—Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 literary classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”), and the brand-new sci-fi novella The Communication Room.  Don’t take my word for it, though:  Sample for yourself some of the free fiction on his Web site, including one of my favorites, the James M. Cain–style noir tale “Wrought Iron”.  If you like what you read and you live in the Los Angeles area, perhaps consider coming out to Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard on Tuesday, August 2nd at 7:00 p.m. to hear Adam read from The Communication Room.

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Saving the Cat from Itself: On Deconstructing “Game of Thrones” and a Troubling Pattern of Misanalysis

The folks over at Save the Cat!, which does not include the program’s late innovator Blake Snyder, offered an object lesson last week on the misapplication of craft.

It’s common practice for Save the Cat! to break down a current or classic movie and illustrate how it conforms to a story’s fifteen major narrative “beats” as Snyder identified them (Blake himself published an entire book dedicated to this skill-building exercise, which I recommend—certainly over any of the recent analyses on the STC! blog).  This is what a sample “beat sheet” (of my own authorship) would look like (click on it for a closer look):

Raiders of the Lost Ark beatsheet

Simple enough, right?  The entire story summarized at its most basic, macrostructural level.  That’s the kind of plot overview I’ll painstakingly compose before I begin Word One of my screenplay or novel, so I know the plot is always tracking in the right direction.  It’s an indispensable application to help a writer “break the back” of his story, as well as an excellent learning tool:  By reverse-engineering well-regarded movies, you can teach yourself the fundamentals of mythic structure.  That is ostensibly the reason Save the Cat! offers sample deconstructions on a near-weekly basis.

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This Is 40: On the Goals I’ve yet to Attain and All the Friends I Haven’t Made

“The future disappears into memory

With only a moment between

Forever dwells in that moment

Hope is what remains to be seen”

—“The Garden,” from Clockwork Angels (2012); lyrics by Neil Peart

2112, the trippy sci-fi concept album and breakout opus from enduring Canadian prog-rock band Rush, turns forty this month.  The music of Rush has had a profound influence on my own art and worldview, so the occasion of 2112’s anniversary—and what’s an anniversary but an acknowledgment of the future’s disappearance into memory?—is one I am compelled to observe with no small degree of private rumination (meaning I won’t bore you with it here).

Rush 2112

Consider for a moment, though, some other things turning forty this year, in no particular order:  Richard Donner’s horror classic The Omen.   Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  Apple, Inc.  NASA’s first Mars landing.  Ebola.  The laser printer.  The Toronto Blue Jays.  The Muppet Show.  The Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

I’m sure I’m forgetting something…

Ah, yes—me.

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The Great Escape: What the Ascendancy of Comic-Book Culture Tells Us about Ourselves

Lest anyone doubt the real-world superheroic capabilities of a fictional character, let me state for the record that Batman taught me how to read.

For in watching the syndicated reruns of the Adam West series in the late seventies—the kitschy opening credits, specifically—my not-yet-literate mind eventually recognized a correlation between the splashy title-card logo and repetitive choral chant that accompanied it, and “Batman” became the first word I could read and write.  Absolutely true story.

"Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba! Batman!"

“Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba! Bat-man!”

I loved the old Batman show—the pop-art color scheme and Dutch angles (not that I took conscious note of such stylistics at the time) were like a cartoon come to life.  The camp humor?  Entirely lost on me:  When Batman and Robin slid down the Batpoles and zoomed off in the Batmobile—staged in that glorious life-sized playset of a Batcave—the sense of adventure was kinetic.  And when the villain-of-the-week left our heroes for dead in some Rube Goldbergian contraption—their fate to be determined in twenty-four agonizing hours!—the tension was excruciating.

Unlike most of my heroes at that time—Michael Knight, the Duke boys—the Dynamic Duo weren’t confined to the limited jurisdiction of their own fictional worlds, but rather popped up elsewhere, too, in animated form on The New Scooby-Doo Movies and Super Friends, and I never quite understood why no one had thought to put Adam West, Christopher Reeve, and Lynda Carter in a movie together; with no concept of copyright issues or irreconcilable aesthetics or what later came to be called “shared cinematic universes,” it seemed like a no-brainer to assemble an all-star superhero team from the preexisting talent pool.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Thirty-five years after I—along with an entire generation raised on the same pop-cultural diet, it turns out—first dreamed it, the team formerly known as the Super Friends are getting the tent-pole treatment next month with the release of Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros.’ opening-salvo attempt at the kind of license to print cash shared cinematic universe Marvel has so deftly pioneered (to the envy of every studio in Hollywood).  Fanboy anticipation is at a full boil, if enthusiasm on social media is any barometer; many are counting down the days with a breadth of fanaticism ordinarily reserved for the Second Coming, others forecasting the would-be mega-franchise’s stillbirth, but all are anxiously awaiting Dawn.

Not me, though.  I can say with absolute and irrevocable certainty that I’ll be sitting out Batman v Superman—in theaters, on home video, on cable.  In perpetuity.

But, more on that shortly.

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Signals in the Noise: Finding Meaning through Storytelling

It’s a strange thing, really, as anyone who knew me way back when can attest, that I now find myself in the predominantly solitary profession known as novelist.

Now, I don’t think any of them would find it the least bit surprising that I’m a creative, it’s only that I preferred to exercise my creativity as an agent of fellowship:  I was the kid who organized weekend games of “Christopher Columbus,” a large-scale, rough-and-tumble variant of hide-and-seek played on the streets of New York (its origins, so far as I know, derive from an obscure teen comedy from the eighties that I haven’t watched since, on the hunch that it’s likely better off remembered than revisited); I hosted annual “murder parties” along with my best friend, Chip, inspired by our love for Clue:  The Movie; and in senior year of high school, we enlisted half the neighborhood in a quixotic production of Lost Boys II, a handmade, feature-length sequel to one of our favorite horror films, itself a kind of ode to teamwork, that we shot on a state-of-the-art VHS-C camcorder.  To this day, I think we did a reasonably credible job of passing off the Bronx as Santa Cruz:  The Palisades along the Hudson River doubled for the coastal cliffs of the Pacific, and a cavernous subbasement I’d discovered beneath a 1970s luxury high-rise served as the vampires’ cave—not a bad bit of on-the-cheap production value, if I do say so!  (The acting and cinematography, on the other hand, from the limited footage that still actually exists, seem somewhat… unpolished.)

In retrospect, the Lost Boys project probably represents an inexorable turning point in my life:  Not only had I finally found a creative outlet that felt like a natural fit (after guitar lessons didn’t pan out and my enthusiasm for comic-book illustration somewhat outweighed my talent for it), but filmmaking would allow me and my friends to do something truly special—make movies!—and, more importantly, to do it together.  Of all the arts, this one embodied the spirit of fellowship I so cherished like none other.  It became one of the great loves of my life, and an obsessive—even tumultuous—twenty-year affair with it ensued.

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