Writing a Story: Part 2 – Finding the Story

So, we have the inspiration – a film based around the idea of a snowball fight (because, as established last time, snowball fights are fun!)

Now comes the part where things start getting tricky, because, let’s face it, you can’t really make a film about snowball fighting. You just can’t. Snowball fights are fun, they are not inherently dramatic. They can be funny as hell (particularly if your bastard of an ex-housemate runs into a fence and quite literally flips 180 degrees when you’re in the middle of one) but, for writing a screenplay, they are not the best subject. There’s no real stakes that come to mind with them – you get very, very wet by home time and have a shedload of stories to tell at school the next day, but other than that, but there’s no real risk or reward with them.

So I created the Snowball World Championship.

Stakes? Hell yes! Win, you’re the Snowball World Champion! Lose, you’re not. Drama... bit trickier. I mean, no-one can die in a snowball fight. Snowballs can’t kill you, so that’s one of the biggest ways of getting drama into a script chucked straight out the airlock. So how do we get drama into a script like this? How do we make it difficult for our heroes? (‘Cause everyone likes making it difficult for heroes. Go watch any movie – Die Hard, Alien, any movie you like, and watch how hard they make it for the hero. Broken glass on the floor – no problem for John C McClaine – no, I don’t know if his middle name starts with a C, BUT WAIT! John C McClaine has no shoes or socks! Now broken glass is an utter, utter BITCH of a problem! Big bad alien killing your crewmates and making you piss yourself with fear? Problem! Blow up the ship – phew! You’ve escaped! OH BUGGER! THE EVIL BASTARD’S ESCAPED! Problem! Think, think, think – I know! Quick! Chuck him out the air lock!)

Well, to return to the original point, to make it difficult, we have reality. World Championships on the other side of the world (Montana, USA if I remember right) cost money. There’s the flights, the hotels, the uniforms (it’s a sports movie, you’ve gotta have uniforms!) So my heroes had to raise the cash for the trip. They were aided and abetted by a friendly newspaper owner, but it was still a nice little challenge for them to deal with.

As well as problems like finances, story comes from conflict. You want a good story? You have to have a great conflict. Avatar has a great conflict – the Earth army versus the peaceful Na’vi, and, even better, it has a secondary conflict related to that as well – Jake. Initially, Jake is a double agent, infiltrating the Na’vi to give General Quaritch intel on them, but then Jake finds himself conflicted between Quaritch and the Na’vi as he gets deeper in the cover, before he finally defects completely as Quaritch proves what an utter bastard he is by blowing the Hometree straight to Hell. This conflict is resolved on a big scale when the Na’vi win the battle against the army and boot humans off Pandora, and on a small scale when Jake abandons humanity and becomes Na’vi by transferring his essence from his human body to his Na’vi one.

Snowball, being a sports movie, already has a big-scale conflict inherent in its nature – the other teams that want to win the tournament. Specifically, in this case, it was the American team that took the antagonist role (now that would have been fun to pitch to Hollywood). But that only works for the tournament, what about for the scenes outside of the competition? Mighty Ducks (God, I’m showing my age, and, possibly, how sad I am) has a great personal conflict in the first movie – the Coach, Gordon Bombay, doesn’t want to coach the team! On top of that, he’s a failure! He failed at the level he’s coaching right now, playing for the team that takes the antagonist role in the film! Fantastic conflict, and that’s before you even bring in the team he’s coaching, a bunch of losers that are perennially rooted to the bottom of the league, playing in kit that’s not fit for the rink. Then, on top of that, Gordon’s training regime isn’t the most popular one on the block, and on top of that,  Gordon exploits a rule change to bring in a player who is a, a lot better than everyone else on the team, and b, from the antagonists! And that’s only half of it! Great small-scale conflicts that add to the story, make things hard for the characters, and ultimately make it even better when they come through the penalty shootout and win the playoff final at the end of the film.

So, how to make conflict in Snowball? Tough question. As I mentioned earlier, snowballs don’t kill people, so I couldn’t kill a member of the team, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t kill another character, say the lead’s dad, who was fighting in Afghanistan. So I did. I made the lead as happy as I could by putting the team into the final, looking forward to it, having a fun time in Montana, and then I basically dropped a bomb the size of the Blitz on him. I killed his dad. From high point to low point, and vice versa, it’s a key point in writing, and one I’m going to elaborate on at some point (that list is getting longer...), and it’s brilliant. Now my hero is as low as he can get, driving himself mad with grief and it’s affecting the team. They got this far because they were friends, because they worked together, and now the hero, their leader, is letting that team fall apart from wanting to win the tournament. It’s hardly a disaster on a scale of the Titanic, but in terms of the story, it’s huge. Now my hero has to overcome his grief and pull himself and his team together, all in time for the big final against the home team in a day’s time (deadlines! Another topic for later!) Conflict! Drama! Fantastic!

And that’s your story. Conflict is drama and drama is story. Once you have that, the world is your sandbox. Now, go out there and find your story.

Ah yes, the immortal first words of a screenplay. But fade in to what? There's so much to write about and so many ways to do it - do you want it to be funny? Dramatic? Tragic? That's up to you. It's your script. Your the one who makes the call. The director, producer, cast, heck, just about everybody in the film industry, can't do jack without a script. That's a lot of pressure to get it right, and often you'll find that time's against you because you'll have about a month to work up some little ten word sentence into a full fledged screenplay if your commissioned (and trust me, as someone who is well versed in the art of hitting deadlines, time will become scarce just when you need it. Like one of those "why bring a gun on a trip" scenarios: You'll definately find yourself in the "need it but don't have it category".

Personally, I'm a firm believer in the first ten pages (about the first ten minutes of the film, give or take, it depends on the content - action sequences usually take longer than dialogue based scenes) being able to draw a reader in, so that's what I've tried doing on two of the three scripts I'm currently working on (the third doesn't even have a "FADE IN:" yet so bear with me). In one instance, we have two gunfights happening in two locations on the far side of the world to each other (well, Baghdad and the UK, which seems pretty far to me), which can be best described as chaos (I did use... somewhat stronger language, shall we say, to describe it in the script, but I'm trying to keep this as clean as possible). The other has a bombshell (somewhat literally) dropped about two thirds of the way down page 8, which is always a good thing.

One thing I've heard most people tend to forget is that after the front 10, there's still about 100 odd pages or so to go! (I will admit, very much guilty of that on my part, I tend to get my beginning together, slap the ending on it and then spend shedloads of time working out just what goes in the middle). This is not a good thing to do. It's all well and good having a beginning of a film that rivals James Bond for it's action and intensity, but if it then peters out over the remaining 100 pages then, sorry bub, but your script pretty much ain't worth the paper it's written on. Which means that, if your anything like me, you've just wasted a bucketload of ink and paper getting the thing printed and a sack of cash buying stamps et cetera trying to get it seen by people. Actually, seeing as the only scripts I've ever finished are five minute shorts which were for an assignment I had to do for college last year and thus printed them out at college, I've never actually had to spend the cash on printing and ink cartridge replacements. Good job too, I'm skint!