Rainey Script Consulting

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Forgive me if you’ve been looking for the next post. I’ve been busy writing for others, which is a good thing in this economy. Somehow, I manage to sneak through the cracks of our current financial constriction and keep afloat by doing what I love. I recently had a Skype discussion with a friend in Germany about why I think Story is so important to cultural awareness.

Mythology defines a culture’s formative ethical structure. It gives a universal consistency to communal interaction by virtue of establishing a common perception. Mythological stories are usually found in religious texts to give a cultural context in which to function. In the western culture (Europe and its imperialist extensions), the Bible seems to put forth most of the allegories by which we define our ethical structure.

There are many such mythologies, all having similar stories of humanity and its interaction with the divine: Mahabharata, Ramayana, Torah, Talmud, Shan Hai Jing, Kojiki, and the multitudes of Native American, African, Aboriginal mythologies that were/are a part of a grand oral tradition.

Most of theses mythologies have a creation story, a flood story (Atlantis?), a migration story, a messiah story, an immaculate-conception-virgin-birth story, a martyr story, a resurrection story, stories of human frailty with consequences and rewards, etc. These stories, allegories, and parables define a cultural context.

In the Western culture, we have been slowly evolving in consciousness. Some milestones that come to mind off the top of my head are the discoveries of Copernicus and Columbus (1490s) adjusting our egocentric perception, Age of Enlightenment (17th-18th centuries), Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species (19th Century), Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (early 20th century), and the current advancements in quantum physics.

These advancements, among others, contribute to the ability of the growing masses to embrace the concept of unity of opposites, a continuum of change, and diversity within unity, which shifts the entire nature of the concept of monotheism from an External Almighty to manifestation being the expanding nature of infinite indivisible source, or God within and without, as above-so below.

Okay, does it appear that I’ve gone way over the top here? Not really. I’m talking about the primary purpose of story, which is to continue to define universal ethics and morality of an evolving cultural consciousness. If a story doesn’t imply an essential moral, whether by uplifting or tragic ending, what is the point of telling the story? I’m not interested in a story that has no underlying purpose implied by resolution of values out of balance.

That said, no one wants to be preached to... unless they seek it out. Most audiences go to a movie because they want to enjoy themselves. There are various emotional conditions that couch that enjoyment. Some like to be sensually aroused, some like to feel terror; some like to feel excitement; some like to feel expansion of the heart; some like to feel mentally challenged; and some like to feel spiritually uplifted.

Notice that I have gone right up the endocrine system, which corresponds with the subtle-body chakras. These various states of emotional arousal are defined by the environment in which the story is told. Story environment happens to be called Genre. Genre is established by point of view, writing style, and content. Genre is a general story environment within which all other elements function.

For me the most important story element is character. I find that if I know my main character, all other elements spring from that knowledge. I define knowing the main character to mean understanding all those foundational qualities that form character itself – redeeming quality, emotional wound, shadows/ghosts, emotional armor, reactive behavior, values out of balance, unconscious needs, conscious desires, and a back-story that leads to the opening of the current story.

If I know my main character well, the story will write itself because plot will evolve from the above-listed character elements. Plot becomes the vehicle that delivers an implied theme. Plot comes from challenging decisions of emotional risk toward the fulfillment of some conscious desire. The ensuing obstacles and dilemmas lead to symbolic crucifixion (sense of death of the quest), an atonement of old beliefs, adjustment in consciousness, a new direction, final conflict, and balancing of values. This implies a specific theme.

In order for this character arc to manifest, the writer must create the story world and people it with the characters that bring this change about in the main character. Therefore, an antagonist is created to represent the main character’s shadow fears, and a conscience character/mentor will be created to urge the main character to make conscious choices that contradict reactive behavior in the face of dilemmas. Other archetypes are created to fulfill the needs of the story, such as ally, tempter, skeptic, threshold guardian, love interest, etc. Situations build one upon the other based on the main character’s escalating choices of emotional risk.

This does not necessarily mean the first impetus to tell a story comes from knowing a character. The initial stimulus for a story could come from anything, such as an incident, a thought, a feeling, memory, or anything that inspires one to creative expression. However, soon after that initial stimulus, I must create a story perspective in the nature of a specific character.

Most books, seminars, screenwriting gurus teach that one needs to write a treatment and outline of one’s story before the script can be written. This is the easy way to teach screenwriting 101, but it is not the only approach to that first draft. Often, I have to write a first draft to discover my main character, my story, and my theme. From thence follows my outline!

This approach allows me to write from a more intuitive place of discovery. Once I have discovered the depths of character – his behavior dictated by his inner emotional construct – and the plot and theme, I go back with my critical brain and reconstruct the character, story, plot, and theme based on my journey through the labyrinth of story impulse.

Does this mean that I sometimes start out not knowing what I want to say? I must confess that it does. However, I have the confidence that I’ll discover my voice as I hack my way through the first draft... always knowing that a critical second draft is waiting in the wings.

This is not everyone’s approach. In fact, some writers find this to be a scary tactic. There are others who write an intuitive first draft without doing the imperative second draft. Unless you are channeling Charles Dickens or Shakespeare, I would advise against skipping this final step.

Well, this post probably needs to be edited and rewritten, but alas, I’m not going to follow my own advice. I’m looking forward to getting back to my story!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Where Do I Start?

“I am the sort of writer who thrives on assignments. A blank slate makes me crazy, but if you tell me what you want and give me a deadline, I’m happy.” Garrison Keillor wrote that in his introduction to his printed script A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (Penguin Books). I can relate. Here I am deciding to create a script for a movie that I have no money for and no one cares. What’s the point? And how do I get started?

First, to the point of why I bother. It’s a little like working out. Sometimes it feels good, but to get and stay in shape you have to be consistent, and consistency can get tedious. But being in shape feels great, so you do it. Like Dorothy Parker said: “I hate to write; I love having written.” I love it whenever someone reads one of my scripts and tells me how much they love it. You could accuse me of being other-directed, but I like reading my stuff too. Also, I know the thrill of being in the creative process. It’s all-consuming. It’s just a matter of overcoming the inertia and getting started.

So, how do I get started in order to begin the journey toward this love fest? I pretend that it is an assignment with strict guidelines. I don’t know what the story is yet, but I create parameters, some of which I already know:

1. The entire movie will be shot in my apartment;
2. I will play the lead and limit my cast to 3;
3. I will spend no more than 50 grand for everything – pre-, shoot, post.

This leads to many influences already built into the above parameters. I look around my apartment and see what I have to work with.
1. 4 walls full of books of every subject, and sheet music, and CDs, and DVDs;
2. a grand piano;
3. a guitar;
4. memorabilia from a marriage and divorce;
5. computers;
6. kitchen utensils;
7. furniture;
8. closet full of clothes;
9. junk closet with toolbox and miscellaneous stuff;
10. doors and windows to the outside world;
11. all the other usual stuff one finds in a bachelor pad.

Then, I become influenced by things I’ve been reading lately. Harold Pinter died recently, so I’ve been rereading his biography and plays. He was influenced by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, so I start reading Beckett’s stuff. Beckett worked with James Joyce, so I delve a little into Joyce. This is the string that my mind follows. If you know any of these writers, you know that their characters live in a paranoid world (which reminds me of Kafka!) – Pinter’s, Beckett’s, and Ionesco’s anyway. They are masters of minimalism, subtext, economy, understatement, and abstraction.

Somehow, among this reading, I detoured off into reading about and watching Alfred Hitchcock’s works. Hitchcock inspired Francois Truffant and the French New Wave, which led me back to Ingmar Bergman and a whole consideration of telling the story visually and as non-verbally as possible. Being of the theatre, this is somewhat foreign to me because I love creating character scene agendas in conflict through dialogue.

Coupled with the above, I have accepted an assignment to write a horror script recently, a genre that I don’t particularly relate to. So, in the past week I’ve watched a ton of horror movies, classic and contemporary, some guffawishly bad and some pretty good. I actually like the psychological horror, which to me is not horror, but terror. Horror can create terror, but I think you can have the terror without the nonsense of splatter, slash and gore, the supernatural Satanic crap, or stupid characters making really stupid choices. I think the best horror films are those where the protagonists are not victims of uncontrollable circumstances, but have created their own circumstance by dilemma-driven decisions between irreconcilable choices. I think the writer and director can create a feeling of more culpability within the audience that way.

All of these current occupations will influence my story and characters. I have given myself parameters. The next step is to create my character and what he wants. Since I cannot separate myself from who I am, I know some things that I will bring to this character. Underlying all the psychological stuff – the fear manifesting as loss, paranoia, disconnection, frustration, ennui, absurd laughter, etc. – the character will have a spiritual hunger, a need to understand his existence and a fundamental desire to express his purpose. I know this will be an inherent part of the character because it is who I am. I will be writing the character and playing him, so this fundamental trait will come out organically.

I’m sure that bouncing back and forth between my project and the horror project will create a cross-fertilization influence as well. My experiences and recently-acquired knowledge will flavor whatever I am working on. The key is to be judicial with it as I shape my story and character. Having written 3 biopics on assignment in the last couple of years, my biggest challenge was to convince the person paying me that the facts were not as necessary as telling a good story. Telling a good story is the number-one priority in all cases. The big question here is how to do that in a small space and keep the audience fascinated and wanting to know what’s going to happen next. And on we go...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Why We Tell Stories

Ideas bounce around in my head that I know I want to include in my story. For instance, yesterday an employee from a drugstore called me to ask me if I had any prescriptions I wanted to fill. I have had prescriptions filled at this store before, but wouldn’t I know if I needed some prescriptions filled? Wouldn’t I just call them and have them filled without their prod? I posed this logic to the eager employee and she asked me if I knew how to get in touch with them? It all went downhill from there. That’s just one of the many recent experiences that I know I can include in my story.

But, before I start on this journey to chart my way through making a no-budget movie, I ask myself why do I want to tell a story in the first place? And why do I want to do it through the medium of film? Why would I go through the rigors of dreaming up a story, structuring the character and plot and theme, scripting it, asking for money (Yes, a no-budget film costs money to make!), finding a crew, a camera, and all the paraphernalia to do the job? It’s a lot of work, much of it tedious.

The answer is that I live in the realm of stories all the time. Stuff just comes to me. When I was a boy, all the kids in the neighborhood would come to my yard and I would cast them in my fantasies. I didn’t think of myself as a “leader”, but as I look back I see I was definitely the one with all the ideas and all the others would just go along for some reason.

There was one kid who lived across the street that my parents didn’t want me playing with. Pat Dover was a latchkey kid who lived with his divorced mom who worked nights. Pat ran around barefoot in dirty clothes and was a little wild, but he was a great and willing actor in my scenarios. He was Huck Finn to my Tom Sawyer.

I had stories that went on for weeks sometimes. It would take us from our back yard, up trees, across the roof of our garage, down the alley, to the railroad yards where we absolutely were not supposed to be. When I was called for dinner, it didn’t matter how many arrows, knives, and bullet wounds I had, I would tell Pat “to be continued” and run in to eat. He always showed up the next day knowing exactly where we left off.

The interesting thing about these stories is that we would battle each other, two quest seekers always at odds with each other, and wind up realizing we were blood brothers. Even if I was the Indian and he was the sheriff looking to arrest my renegade ass, we would discover our kinship with a matching medalion, or matching birthmarks, or some other device I had dreamed up. We would then team up victoriously against a common enemy. Then, somehow, we would forget that we were brothers and become enemies once again. It was a great couple of summers!

When I was an adolescent, I enlisted my sister and brother to record mock radio shows complete with disk jockey, songs, commercials, and radio dramas. We would use our dad’s reel-to-reel recorder that we were told not to ever touch and threatened within an inch of our lives if we did. But the desire to create was stronger than the fear of punishment. Years later as an adult, my dad, now divorced from my mom, told me he wanted me to hear something and played one of those tapes. He told me it was his most treasured possession and had listened to it hundreds of times.

I don’t know where this urge to create stories comes from, but I do know that the structure of story, as codified by Aristotle, is in everyone’s DNA. Ingrained into us by many thousands of years of story telling around the village fires for teaching purposes, we all instinctively know the elements a story needs to be successful. If we are not story tellers, we are at least story listeners. One of the basic tenets of good story telling is to give the audience what it expects, but not how it expects the outcome. If we don’t do that well, the audience is savvy enough to hit the gong.

I think that it’s important during these turbulent times with cultural, religious, and regional lines being drawn in the proverbial sand that we remember the common bonds of music and story telling. All cultures grow their roots in a mythology that becomes uniquely their own. Yet, as Joseph Campbell shows us in HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, there is a commonality in the multiplicity of mythologies because the human experience is universal as a result of our similar nervous systems. Mythology helps us to understand our experiences and preserve the past.

When I asked my brother what kinds of movies he likes he told me he only watches movies to escape. I asked him is his life was so bad he feels he has to escape. “No,” he said. “It helps me to relax.” Of course, if a story teller can bring an audience to this relaxed state, that is a great time to sneak a little life lesson in under the radar as well.

I think there is a continuum from pure escapism to interpretive story telling. On the pure escapist end of the spectrum, stories are tightly structured with a familiar story-telling template so the audience doesn’t have to think much. They just sit back on the roller coaster and take the ride. On the other end of the spectrum an audience is required to be a part of the story-telling experience. By virtue of experiencing less formal unique structures of character, plot, and thematic information, they reach some greater understanding of the values they bring to the process. As we bring our personal values into balance with conscious understanding, while being entertained, we create the inner fabric to build a more unified outer community. This unified community brings joy to the individual. That, for me, is the purpose of telling stories.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ideas on Variable Story Perspectives

Ideas on Variable Story Perspectives

I’m sitting here at Mick’s CafĂ© in Pacific Palisades waiting for a poetry reading by a friend of mine, John FitzGerald, at Village Books down the street. Since I stirred my consciousness about multiple ways to structure a movie story, my mind has been flooded with ideas I want to relate. What better time than the present.

I wish to preface my thoughts with the caution that all of these ideas should be attempted only after becoming supremely adept at single perspective, beginning-middle-end story-telling. Ninety-eight percent of the books on screenwriting talk about basic structure. People who complain about “the formula” are either people who watch only studio-produced movies, or writers who haven’t yet mastered the form.

A word about form. Form creates boundaries. Without boundaries, a story can become unruly, tedious, and without focus. Any art form has certain rules – rules that can be “broken” only by those who understand the rules... with few exceptions. A master, then, doesn’t ignorantly break the rules, but transcends them and creates his/her own form with awareness. A craftsman fills a form over and over until the work begins to dictate an expansion or alteration of those boundaries.

On my website, http://www.raineyscriptconsulting.com/, I expound upon the fundamentals of screenwriting with my unique take on the construction of basic screen-story structure. I explain how theme and plot have a symbiotic relationship through the main character to create a single spine. Consider the spine of the human body. The vertebrae give you an overt structure, like a plot, and the spinal cord connects all parts of the body to each other as well as the psyche, like a theme. The key component of this plot/theme relationship and the controlling factor that drives the story forward and builds the character arc is the escalating succession of emotionally-challenging decisions that the main character makes throughout act two.

Once you have embodied the above practice so that it unfolds for you intuitively, you are ready to play with structural variations. The first variation to attempt is a dual-perspective story, or a story that has two main characters. In order to go there, I think it’s important, first of all to understand the difference between main character and protagonist.

Melanie Anne Phillips, creator of Dramatica: A Theory of Story, is the first that I know of to put forth this separation. Everyone in the Hollywood story factory talks about protagonist as the perspective character of a story. However, that is not necessarily the case in many movies. So, what is the difference?

The word ‘protagonist’ is a Greek word that implies a story function that drives a story. This is an objective element of a story that is represented by a leading character. Any story archetype is a story function – good guy, bad guy, sidekick, mentor, tempter, skeptic, herald, trickster, threshold guardian, shape-shifter, love interest, etc., all are story functions.

A Perspective Character, on the other hand, is a character through whose subjective eye we see the story. In most studio films, the Protagonist function is performed by the Perspective Character. The ‘check list’ that readers use to qualify your script demands that this be the case.

There are many award-winning films, however, where the protagonist does not carry the subjective perspective of the story. For example, review the following movies: TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD, PRIMARY COLORS, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, AMERICAN BEAUTY, THE BIG CHILL, GRAND CANYON, etc.

Then, there are movies that have multiple protagonists, such as TRAFFIC, CRASH, LOVE ACTUALLY, PULP FICTION, NASHVILLE, WELCOME TO LA, SHORT CUTS, SYRIANA, BABEL, etc. In the case of these multiple protagonist movies, the underlying theme of each becomes the ephemeral idea that unites the multiple stories.

In each of theses movies, who drives the story? Then ask, from whose perspective is the story told? As you will see, the character that drives the story is not always the character that carries the story’s point of view. I think that it is important to make this distinction when considering the construction of plot and theme. The Protagonist of your story will drive the plot; the Perspective Character will reveal the theme by virtue of his/her emotional arc and changing values.

Time to go to my poetry reading. More later...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Welcome to my New Blog!

I have been writing screenplays for 20 years now. I’ve sold a few, written a few on assignment, and optioned many. Some have been optioned several times. Everyone who reads my scripts seems to love my writing, but getting a script to the screen is the miracle. The toughest part of making a movie is raising the initial money to get it into production, especially if you want to make it through all the industry channels. These days that process has become highly improbable for many.

That is why indie filmmaking has become so popular. There are schools and books on guerilla filmmaking and literally thousands of festivals to exhibit a film once it’s made. I’m currently working on a super-low-budget indie film (someone else’s) for the education. It’s like going to school. Because unions and permits are circumvented and the money is scarce, I’m able to jump in and do everything from PA work to craft services to continuity supervising. I now know why people specialize in crew work. For a film production to go smoothly, everyone must know what s/he is doing. Amateurs get in the way. The crew has a unique name for every little thing and you gotta know the lingo... especially if you work on the genie (grip and electric) crew.

However, this will not stop me from going in the direction of writing more indie-type scripts. After being at this craft for over 20 years, I realize that I want more control over my own product. I want to direct what I write. I have already written 3 spec indie scripts and I’m learning with each one how to take production costs into account during the writing. Now, I want to write one that costs virtually nothing to make (that means under $50,000). How will I do that? I will write a script where the story takes place completely within my own living space (all interiors, meaning I can control weather and light) with a minimum of characters – 3 max.

While this blog will be a place where I can share my musings with you on the elements of writing scripts, I will also track my progress on this quest to get a movie made under my complete control... he said with the naiveté of a novice. I hope to encourage and guide you to and through your own film production as I share my experiences and mistakes with you.

In the meantime, I continue to consult with writers on their scripts. There is a wealth of information on line and in books on screenwriting. Most of this information deals with screenwriting 101, i.e. writing a beginning-middle-end story with a single main character who is also the protagonist of the story. There are many other forms and formats of story-telling, but screenwriting 101 must be mastered before any other form is tackled. Screenwriting 101 is the fundamental structure of any good story. The more advanced forms of story-telling are a variation on this theme. I’ll write more about these advanced forms in later posts.