I was reading comments on Linked In about multiple protagonist films being essentially TV forms and not at present popular and accepted, I'd disagree. I think they are very common in film and have been for many years. Almost every time you see a poster that shows a group of characters together you're looking at a multiple protagonist film. Almost every group mission, siege or reunion film is structured this way - because the point of such stories is that a number of equally interesting individuals are thrown together by the same event and each reacts differently (and interestingly) to each event. These films aren't rarities or art house films. 'The Hangover' series are all multiple protagonist films, as is 'The Full Monty', 'Death at a Funeral', 'Independence Day', all of those 'Cinderella Sports Team' movies and really any movie that could be subtitled 'Let's put on a show' or, in gangster movies. 'One last job' . Most war films are structured this way. I haven't yet seen it but from the sound of it, I imagine 'The Monument Men' is multiple protagonist film. From memory I'd say the Police Academy comedies are also multiple protagonist. Commercially, the great thing about these films is that they normally provide a number of really good roles that attract good actors. As for the idea of considering your multiple protagonist for a TV series instead, it's a good idea, but it'll only work if your premise - what your multiple protagonist group is doing - must be capable of providing many seasons.
I recently wrote the post below entitled Ten Ways the Conventional Hollywood three act one hero Chronological Structure will let you down. A filmmaker responded: ‘It worked for William Shakespeare’. Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but I feel this is inaccurate, and since those of who write drama need to take old Bill very seriously indeed, I responded in detail, explaining that Shakespeare used multiple storylines, not just one and even flashback (in Henry V), his structure being similar to what we see in films like Nashville and Traffic and in many TV series and serials (which I suspect inherited their structure from the stage). I thought you might be interested. And by the way, always feel free to correct or challenge my ideas. Convince me and I'll change 'em. Here's the post
With respect I believe this to be inaccurate, but I'm happy to be corrected. Shakespeare's plays are all, famously, in five acts, but even if we leave that formality of structure aside, Shakespeare's plays to the best of my knowledge, all have multiple plotlines, not just one hero on a single journey, although each of those multiple storylines is usually, I think, a three act structure.
Shakespeare's plays utilise a very similar multiple storyline structure to the one used in films like 'Traffic' or 'Nashville' (a structure that I have I have termed 'tandem narrative' meaning 'stories running together') which is a structure involving a number of equally important stories on the same theme. In this, you have multiple storylines linked by: theme; often (but not always) geography; and characters that appear in several different storylines.
A lot of TV drama is structured like this, too, with multiple separate plotlines, hence the irritation of experienced TV writers when they're told linear one hero structure is the only way..
Shakespeare's comedies, like all Elizabethan/Jacobean comedies, famously have three plot lines, not just one, featuring three separate couples with stories on the same theme. Having three couples in a comedy was actually a convention of English comedy writing at the time, there being also a dance featuring all six together at the end of the play.
'Henry V' famously features what I've termed a bookend flashback structure (where a character in the present appears and talks about the past - or is reminded by it - and we flash back ('this wooden 0") . When we're in the past in Henry V, there are several storylines there. The tragedies have several plotlines on the same theme (eg King Lear has the Gloucester/Edgar/Edmund storyline on the same theme as that of Lear, namely 'ungrateful/grateful child' but note that Lear himself appears in it only at the start ).
Also, while it is currently fashionable to assert that all great drama is based on the Aristotelian notion of unities of time and place and single plotline, Shakespeare was famous for not fitting this model. There was a huge debate about this in the eighteenth century, in which Racine I believe and the French neoclassicists rejected Shakespeare as a bad playwright) However, Dr Johnson wrote a famous piece arguing that Shakespeare transcended Aristotle's formulae. So the 'Aristotelian structure is the only one' argument was put to bed two centuries ago. And, of course, French neoclassic drama famously atrophied and died out because it was so rule bound). But that's a whole other issue.
Happy to be corrected if Shakespeare did write any plays that featured solely one hero in one chronological three storyline.
For more information on my theories go first to Practical Writing Advice on my website then read my book The 21st Century Screenplay. And there are also videos of me, some free, one, a two hour lecture, for purThis nonlinear multiple storyline stuff isn't easy, but it's doable. (and that witty pic of Shakespeare is from the very clever Slatebreakers site)
How do you brainstorm for ideas for film and TV when you find it hard to switch off your logical mind?
I had a question from a writer who wrote very kind things about my work (which was very nice) then asked me for help. The writer explained that they had a very logical mind and found the brainstorming process I explain in The 21st Century Screenplay (in which I get writers to switch between their lateral and vertical imagination to get ideas), very difficult because they could see a myriad of different meanings in my terminology.They wanted me to clarify my meaning since they felt that only then would they be able to proceed. They wanted the definitions absolutely correct. Since this problem might be something that concerns others, I’ll answer in the blog.
I’m so pleased that my work has been useful to you. You write to me for help about definitions of terms in the chapters on brainstorming. I would like to help here, so I’ll give you my response. My view is not that you need to get answers on these matters of semantics before you can brainstorm. Not at all. What I see is a person with very impressive vertical/ logical/ analytical skills who is locked into a definitional loop which, while interesting in itself, is actually preventing proper brainstorming for creative writing purposes. What I see here is a vertical imagination itself engaged in brainstorming – brainstorming endless alternative meanings which are intriguing philosophically but not relevant to the task at hand. It is a wonderful gift to have such powers of logic. Congratulations. Those powers will be immensely useful to you in your writing. But to write to your best you need to make a conscious effort to switch between vertical and lateral at the right times, otherwise you won’t get the best out of either part of your mind. At the moment you’re locked into vertical and it’s blocking your imagination. That happens to a lot of people. The opposite also happens when people get locked into lateral and write in a kind of intoxicated way creating material that’s silly or over the top. The trick is getting the balance, and it’s very hard at first.
Brainstorming is simply a tool, like a pencil. It’s simply a way to trick the suppressed lateral imagination out into the open, to force it to make new and exciting connections. The trigger is not important in itself, it’s just way to set off original ideas. Just as knowing the chemical constituents of graphite will not help you draw better, so troubling yourself over a range of possible alternative meanings for my terminology will not help you create better stories. To do that, simply choose one of your definitions, then consciously put your logical vertical self to one side for the time being and give yourself permission to be illogical and silly for a little while as you free associate the connections that come to you. When you have a good long list of ideas and fragments from your lateral side, consciously bring your vertical side back into action to filter the quality of the results.
For people who are very vertical it can be very difficult to switch off the vertical mind because the lateral mind is so wild and crazy that the person feels out of control. But being out of control is exactly what we want in this instance. That’s exactly what we need for the brainstorming process. It’s a dream-like mentality. Don’t worry. It’s only temporary. Vertical will come into play again to filter the ideas that are weak or silly.
I suggest that you practice brainstorming by using a stopwatch. At first, give yourself just thirty seconds simply to free associate from any trigger while suppressing your vertical mind. Gradually increase that lateral time over a few days. It will be hard, but you will get there.
Imagination is a muscle. The harder you work it the stronger it gets. Think of your lateral imagination as being a bit like muscle memory for a musician. It’s not conscious or intellectual but it’s absolutely vital to your performance. Your vertical imagination is a great gift. Just learn when to quarantine it and when to let it do its job. I hope this helps and good luck.
There's an unintentionally very funny article in New Scientist this week.
It seems a team of French boffins has invented enormously complex face recognition and audio recognition software called Story Visualizer (StoViz)that you can use to de-construct your favourite TV series and isolate plotlines involving your favourite character.
Wicked. Except that a quick phone call to the production house and sufficient money changing hands could have got them files full of detailed breakdowns of plotlines, character arcs, series arc, along with beat sheets, scene breakdowns, scripts - whatever they liked. All of these plot and character elements are, of course, planned long in advance by writers, producers, and often network executives. In fact, they often form a major part of the original pitch. Armies of people agonise over them throughout the creative development process - making sure they are original enough, complex enough, properly developed enough - and on and on.
I'm not quite sure how New Scientist or the boffins concerned think TV series get to the screen. Apparently the storylines kinda... just ... happen... Or is the article saying we writers are superhuman? Listen to this:
Identifying key plot points and tracing character arcs are not easy, even for a human. In fact what makes a show compelling is often the way it weaves these elements together in sophisticated ways.
Indeed. But look at the magnificent digital big guns StoViz throws at the problem.
So StoViz's first task involved "de-interlacing" those themes into individual threads. To find a particular storyline, it used image analysis to seek actors' faces and background scenery used in certain scenarios, in addition to analysing the audio for key words associated with that story.
The software then assembles a group of scenes that its video and audio algorithms have decided are semantically similar, and therefore hopefully represents the same plot line. In the same way, if you are interested in a certain actor, you can choose their face and only their scenes will be compiled into a summary.
Oh dear, dear. A couple of experienced TV writers supplied with sufficient beer and peanuts could have deconstructed those storylines and character arcs in no time, indeed, possibly on the fly.
In the words of the great Homer 'D'oh'! Check it out at http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21628905.300-customise-your-favourite-tv-show.html
Hello everyone. I hope you've all recovered from this year's fantastic London Screenwriters Festival. And I hope you like my new streamlined website and blog!
I've just been running some videolectures from London to students at the Netherlands Film and TV Academy in Amsterdam on how to structure ensemble films, and thinking as I planned my lectures just how very complex the planning and plotting issues are in these films. So it was an interesting coincidence when a very pertinent question and lots of answers appeared on the Linked In Screenwriting forum about how many characters you can use in these sorts of films. If you follow this blog, you'll know that I responded. The most recent question asked about TV, so I replied to that too. I've put my response in here, below this post, and you can see the other responses on Linked in.
What is all boils down to really is that you can't approach ensemble films as if they are rather unruly 'one hero on a single journey' films. They are structured in a completely different fashion, as a series of separate stories, with all kinds of particular problems, particuarly with backstory and interweaving (you must interweave in such a way as not to be repetitive, and you have so many story strands, often about unfinished emotional business that your head sometimes spins) So the apparently odd question of 'how many characters...etc' is not odd at all. It's absolutely pertinent. What's scary about the flim industry at the moment is that so many people across all fields believe that you absolutely MUST have only one protagonist. Which wrecks lots of ensemblefilms (in which all of the characters' have stories).
Anyhow, I'm delighted that we're all talking about this stuff now, difficult as it is.
Here's what I wrote in Linked in when someone asked how many characters in TV series
Usually TV series use about six, because there is only sufficient time to handle that number of characters taking the limelinght in your max 50 minute time slot, and people devising TV series agonise about how many and who. For more info on TV writing see my ebook TV Writing The Ground Rules of Series, Serials and Sitcom http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Television_Writing.html?id=8j1AYBJKWvQC Regarding Ensemble films, they use different structural plans from one-hero films because they are running multiple stories. It's a different set of rules and a different mind set.
The question about 'how many characters are too many' goes to the heart of ensemble screenwriting in both film and TV because of the time restrictions on you as you try to tell but control all those stories/story strands. You don't have time for unlimited character numbers unless you use special forms and some of those forms permit more characters than others.
Why the time problem? Well, for example if the characters in your film know each other you can have huge amounts of backstory to sneak in about their past interactions and unfinished emotional business as you also try to tell the main group 'adventure'. You can have 17-20 story strands to run. Yes, there are ensemble forms in which you can use more characters (40 I think in Magnolia - although this is a film that has problems with its meaning and closure) but you have to quarantine them in stories or you'll get characters in search of a plot.This is a fascinating but huge topic! Anyhow, if you're interested there's a little video interview I did in Sweden on this sort of stuff on the home page of my site www.lindaaronson.com
Rushing, as usual, in a recent post on this blog I forgot to add a crucial link to a discussion about TV series and Serial Writing that I was having on a Linked In Discussion Group. We were discussing Cold Feet and the issue of TV Series and Serial Writing . So here is the discussion I mentioned. Sorry!
Here's what I said.
For me a lot of the success behind Cold Feet was the choice and blend of characters which permitted excellent comedy writing and of course the writer's brilliant wit. Comedy was the big seller in that, I'd say.
The issue you're discussing here is the well night impossible question to answer of 'what makes a good series?' . While we can't really answer that, what we can do is be very tough about staying on task during development, trying to isolate and hang on to what we think is the big seller. One thing I created when I was working on devising TV drama series was something I called 'The Series Template', and a lot of people have found it useful. It's an extra bit to go in the bible, but it precedes the bible. It's essentially, 'what you have to get in each episode', and it covers specific character interaction, type of structure, style etc - all in one sentence grabs. The great thing about the Series Template is that you can create it very early on in the development process so it help in development (when it's really easy for discussion to go off the point), but also for ongoing use. I've written about the Series Template in a book on TV I wrote called 'TV Writing: The Ground Rules of Series, Serials and Sitcom' It's now available as an ebook.
(Television Writing: The Ground Rules of Series, Serials and Sitcom)
It's a bit out of date but constantly pirated so someone must be finding it useful.
One of the biggest problems we have as writers is staying on task - we'rewriters, we're inventive - we can easily get distracted away from writing Little Red Riding Hood by getting really interested in Little Red Riding Hood's wacky Auntie. Great, but that ain't the job description. So a constant reminder of 'what am I supposed to be doing here' is immensely useful.
There is also a general need for new series arc each season to stop atrophy. So, how? In practical, technical terms? Now that TV is delighting viewers by breaking new ground in things structural (you can barely watch an evening's TV drama these days without seeing flashbacks, time jumps etc) one way that I suggest is the use of a range of nonlinear series arcs. Technically difficult, but I've recently given talks to TV writers in Poland and at the BBC TV Drama Writers' Festival on exactly that, and there's a lot of interest because, as you rightly point out, there's always a need to punch up drama series before they get tired (and as quickly as possible when they do).
Here's a post I wrote in response to Philip Shelley's discussion on Linked In Screenwriters' Group about TV Drama Series. The issue you're discussing here is the well night impossible question to answer of 'what makes a good series?' . While we can't really answer that, what we can do is be very tough about staying on task during development, trying to isolate and hang on to what we think is the big seller. One thing I created when I was working on devising TV drama series was something I called 'The Series Template', and a lot of people have found it useful. It's an extra bit to go in the bible, but it precedes the bible. It's essentially, 'what you have to get in each episode', and it covers specific character interaction, type of structure, style etc - all in one sentence grabs. The great thing about the Series Template is that you can create it very early on in the development process so it help in development (when it's really easy for discussion to go off the point), but also for ongoing use. One of the biggest problems we have as writers is staying on task - we're writers, we're inventive - we can easily get distracted away from writing Little Red Riding Hood by getting really interested in Little Red Riding Hood's wacky Auntie. Great, but that ain't the job description. So a constant reminder of 'what am I supposed to be doing here' is immensely useful.
Murder: Joint Enterprise is a multi-layered subtle screen drama written by Rob Jones and directed by Birger Larsen. It’s a five star piece - excellent – depicting different versions of the same event, a murder
Of course we’ve seen that structure before. It’s in the same family as films like Rashomon and Run Lola Run and I’ve given that family of forms the name of ‘consecutive stories ‘( a horribly clumsy name but usefully descriptive). Joint Enterprise belongs to the sub group of consecutive stories that I call ‘Different Perspectives’. It shows its family resemblance here because, typical of this form, its theme is the slippery nature of truth, which it depicts through three versions of the same events and it's about a criminal subset of society. More about consecutive stories
What sets Joint Enterprise apart - where it’s breaking new ground and where we can learn from it - is in the particular use it’s making of direct-to-camera monologues, intercut with flashbacks to different versions of the same crime.
So what is the pattern? Okay. We get direct-to-camera monologues from: the two accused, the investigating detective, witnesses, the mother of one accused and a defence lawyer – all intercut with flashbacks to the murder, of which are given three versions.
The first two are the conflicting versions of each co-accused (punctuated with observations from the other characters). The third, which appears after the trial verdict, is the the event itself, showing us what really happened,
Certainly, we’ve seen characters explaining the past in interview situations or straight to camera intercut with flashbacks before – The Usual Suspects and The Life of David Gale are two examples. But in those films the point was to show two false narrators, two convincing liars, two men deliberately manipulating the truth that they fully understand for ulterior motives. What’s interesting about the monologues from the two accuseds in Joint Enterprise is that they do not show people deliberately lying in full awareness of the truth. Instead, the monologues are used to depict the subjective nature of truth . Both co-accused are convinced that they are telling the truth (although one, when pressed, will admit to the real facts only quickly to suppress or discount them). What we are being shown is how truth changes according to the perceptions and personalities of those experiencing it and relating it. We see two violent people who forget or block out facts that exonerate them as well as incriminate them. We experience one coaccused whose self-hatred is so articulate that for a time we believe them to be far worse than they are. We see how omissions and lies of the other co-accused finally become the truth for that person. Above all, we see just how dangerous it is to take people at their word or on first impressions. And it’s chilling, because what we get is a king-hit in both our emotions and our intellect. We get genuinely unnerving characters along with disturbing illustrations of the slippery nature of truth, giving us thought-provoking message about the difficulties and fallibility of both police investigations and the legal system.
This is all the more remarkable when you think of the muted emotional impact of the standard murder whodunnit, even in its more grisly forms. The Poirots and Midsomer Murders don’t usually engage emotionall, What emotional content there is is usually there in the relationship line of the investigators, which is often a little comic strand, and there is only a very basic intellectual payoff, in the form of a puzzle to be solved. That’s fine. It’s a style and a very popular one and because it’s easy viewing does not mean it’s necessarily easy writing. The point is the difference in intention.
So what can we learn from Joint Enterprise?
1) If you want to make the hairs on the back of your audience’s necks stand on end you probably need to go for character exploration, not just clever facts in the murder. Note that the highly popular Swedish detective thrillers as well as series like Life on Mars feature characterful investigators with an emotionally-involving serial storyline.
2) Monologues that are in conflict with flashbacks to different versions of the same event can provide very subtle and complex character exploration. You could use this technique for many different storylines.
3) The relative nature of truth is a potentially very rich topic and could also be illustrated in range of storylines (but violence is likely to be easier because it carries high jeopardy while other forms may struggle to maintain pace through the repetitions).
By the way, it's a shame that so much of the publicity around this fine drama did not mention the writer, Rob Jones.
Just a final question for you. Should Joint Enterprise have shown us the final version, the actual truth, or should it have left that out? I'm not sure. I don't have strong feelings on this, but some people do.
I loved 'Six Feet Under'. Brilliant TV. So here's a practical plotting exercise with a TV slant that will strengthen your 'story muscle' across all forms of scriptwriting. One of the hardest skills to master as a scriptwriter is practical plotting at speed. It takes plain old practice. Keep your answers in a portfolio that you can show to a producer to illustrate how good a writer you are.
Brainstorm ten ideas for interesting moral dilemmas that a doctor in a TV medical series might face (just a sentence each). Remember, give yourself permission to write down weak ideas (you will filter them later) Go for quantity not quality because this way you’ll flush out all of the clichés first.
If you are thinking: ‘how cheesy is that!’, well, fair comment – in a way. Your answers could well be cheesy and clichéd – that’s what happens in bad TV writing. However, the test for you –what will show that you are a good writer – is to create brilliant, thought- provoking dilemmas out of a task that seems inherently doomed to cheesiness. The task in TV writing is usually to escape the cliches. It's hard. Push yourself.
BLOG.LINDAARONSON.INFO: Linda Aronson on Voice Over Linda Aronson on Voice Over
In the Screenwriting Group at LinkedIn this question was posed “We all know that voice-over narration is a crime against cinema. Or do we...? Voice-over: sin or salvation?”
I haven’t read all the responses (there were over 80 ), but the replies I read were all along the lines that VO was a valid, proven, excellent tool, with many people listing good examples (btw, it’s a good site, so check it out). Here’s my response.
Great, we’re all agreed the technique is valid and proven over and over again to be vividly successful. Our next step should be a careful analysis of successful and unsuccesful examples in films to establish, when, where and why VO works, and when where and why it doesn’t. That way we'll get guidance to how to use VO successfully.
For example, it seems to me that VO is often successfully used in a mininmal form to bookend a film, articulating ideas and themes while simultaneously providing a hook at the start of the film and a payoff twist at the end (for example in 21 Grams).
I would also add that it’s fascinating how often in screenwriting theory moral condemnation is attached to the use of techniques. For example, flashbacks are ‘lazy’ or ‘voice over is trite’.
You can’t ascribe moral values to writing techniques any more than to a paintbrush or the the use of specific fingering by a violinist. The only issue is the degree to which the techniques achieve the intended effect. In short (as many people in the LinkedIn Screenwriting Group said about VO), the only issue is whether it works.
My own personal response to the question is that VO can indeed get out of hand because our job as scriptwriters involves condensing dialogue so as to utilise subtext. We are always tightening dialogue! Hence, given the chance with VO to launch into purple prose, it’s very easy to get drunk on words - rambling lyrically on, with the accompanying visuals stuck in the same plot point, stopping the film in its tracks. This is a big problem with adaptation of novels. It’s very tempting to insert brilliant bits of the novel’s narrative while the visuals become a kind of travelogue.
My motto is forewarned is forearmed, so, in the attempt to avoid a dose of redundant purple prose in VO , I would suggest that prior to using VO, we define precisely why we want to use it and what ideas we want to transmit.
I’d also suggest that we work out what needs to be on the screen (telling the story visually) before composing the VO. That way, we’ve imposed limits on ourselves and can excel within them.
Linda is a screenwriter, novelist and playwright. As well as teaching and mentoring writers around the world, she regularly consults on screenplays at the highest level in the US, UK and Australia.