CHAPTER 7

EMOTIONALLY COMPELLING STORY

What’s at Stake?

Stories—movies in particular—are vicarious experiences. Adventure. Catharsis. If character is the hook that gets readers and viewers involved, story is the line that reels them in. “I look for a story that moves me,” says Paul Haggis—who, as a screenwriter, director, producer and multiple Oscar-winner—has a broader perspective than most. “And that’s hard to find. You need to be able to say, this is a story that, once it’s on the screen, will move me in some way. It’ll make me laugh, it’ll make me cry, break my heart, heal me. Whatever it is, it will touch me. And if it touches me, it will touch others as well. That’s probably the most important thing to know.”

When considering material, Oscar-nominated producer Michael Nozik asks questions. “Is there a compelling central character? One whose dilemma can sustain the story? And what is that dilemma? Is it one that I care about, that I can relate to; one that I think an audience will relate to? I actually ask if I relate to it first, because if I can’t understand it and relate to it, I’m probably not going to be of much use in moving the project forward.

“I’ve tried a few times with things where I thought, hey, this story seems commercial—but if it doesn’t affect me on an emotional level, if it doesn’t compel me, I actually can’t go the distance with it, can’t develop it, can’t sell it very well because I’d just be faking it. And I just don’t understand or know how to do that.” Even the most fascinating character in the world can’t save a bad story.

But what, exactly, is a bad story? Read more…

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Authors have a single, overriding function: to connect reader and story. At our best, we immerse the reader so thoroughly in the world of our story that the “real” world disappears and, for a time, there is nothing but the story. That’s the kind of experience readers hope for and deserve. It’s a also a zen-like state that is not easily achieved.

It becomes impossible when a brightly-dressed, cymbal-banging acrobat starts jumping around in front of the reader, yelling “Hey, look at me!” Yet many authors unknowingly engage in the literary equivalent of this practice by inserting themselves between reader and story—usually in one (or more) of the following ways. Read more…

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HEROES IN PERIL

Many authors feel compelled to open their stories with a scene involving their hero in action and/or high drama. This is particularly true of those writing in the action/adventure and science fiction genres. But unless you know what to avoid here, this is almost always a mistake—and it can be a fatal one.

There are several films I like to cite as examples of this principle at work. Speed 2 is the first. We open with a SWAT cop on a motorcycle, pursuing a step van up a steep and twisting road. During the chase, the van’s rear doors pop open, and large boxes fall onto the road, threatening to crash the cop, who swerves this way and that to avoid the tumbling boxes. It’s meant to be exciting, but it’s not, and here’s why: we’ve never seen this guy before, we don’t know who he is, and—because of that—we don’t care what happens to him. Read more…

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PART II

WHAT HOLLYWOOD WANTS (AND WHY)

Most authors would like to see their work adapted for the big (or small) screen, but the path from here to there is at best unfamiliar—and can seem incomprehensible. Some bestsellers are made into movies, others ignored. Obscure books, short stories, and magazine articles are blessed by Hollywood’s magic, while thousands of screenplays are turned away. What sense does that make? Is there no rhyme or reason here?

Well, yes, actually. But it’s hard to make out when—like most writers—you’re on the outside looking in. The twelve chapters that follow will take you through the looking glass and make some sense of the enigma that is the Hollywood adaptation process. More importantly, it will explain why some books are made into movies while others are not, and what you can do to make your story more attractive to filmmakers. Read more…

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There is no excerpt because this is a protected post.

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As mentioned in Part One, writing mechanics are dull, but essential—like checking the oil and brake fluid when you’d rather be cruising down the coast. You can’t do one without keeping an eye on the other. So let’s take a look at another batch of common mechanical errors…

APOSTROPHES

Apostrophes are often misused. It’s hard to tell whether this results from inattention or misunderstanding, but here’s the rule: with few exceptions, apostrophes signify contractions and possessives—and nothing else.

Contractions are shortened words: that’s for that is, wouldn’t for would not, could’ve for could have, you’re for you are, that sort of thing. By far the most troublesome word in this category is it’s, a shortening of it is. The confusion likely stems from the fact that, unlike other contractions, it’s looks like a possessive.Read more…

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“Mechanical errors” have to do with the nuts and bolts of writing. If concept is your flashy car, plot the engine, characters the driver and passengers—then story mechanics are the fasteners holding your engine together. They’re not exciting, glitzy, or personable, and no one pays them any mind. Until something goes wrong.

That’s when you hear an annoying clank, somewhere under the hood. Soon, it becomes difficult to hear the passengers or enjoy the scenery. Before too long, that clank-clank-clank is all you can think about. And if someone doesn’t climb under the hood and fix the damned thing, it will eventually stop your engine.

Let’s look at some common mechanical errors. Read more…

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Make Your Story A Movie: Chapters 1-3

by John Robert Marlow

INTRO TO FREE ONLINE VERSION (UPDATED 2019)

The original MYSAM (Make Your Story A Movie) book was traditionally published by Macmillan/St. Martin’s Griffin in 2012. What you’re reading now is a sort of v1.5—updated in 2019 and placed (free) on the website. MYSAM v2.0 will be published in 2020, with new contributions from authors, screenwriters, producers, directors and others not found in previous versions (including this one). I’ll also be covering digital/streaming and series, which are far more important now than they were in 2012. This version 1.5 may go offline when v2.0 appears. Start reading the free book now…

Adaptations Sweep 2019 Oscars: 97% Noms / 100% Wins

by John Robert Marlow

And the winner is…the adaptation (again). The box office, of course, has long been ruled by adaptations; 80% of the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time are based on other things. (Top 100 Adaptations list here.) Oscar contenders (and winners) from 2001-2019 are also mostly adaptations—but this year, things have gone through the roof, with 97% (96.969%, to be precise) of Big Five nominees—and 100% of Big Five wins—going to adaptations or work on adaptations.

The “Big Five” categories are Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role, and Best Writing. Read more…

Top 100 Highest-Grossing Adaptations of All Time

by John Robert Marlow

Page Update: The top-100 adaptations as of February 23, 2019: Film titles, box office rankings, source materials, it’s all here.

In the next post: Adaptations Sweep 2019 Oscars with adaptations accounting for 97% of “Big Five” nominations (Best Picture, Best Writing (Adapted and Original Screenplays), Best Directing, Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Best Actress in a Leading Role. A 100% winners sweep seems likely.