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Approaching Character: The Circle of Being

by Syd Field

Henry James, the great American novelist, in an essay entitled The Art of Fiction, asks a rhetorical question about the nature of character: “What is character,” he writes, “but the determination of incident. And what is incident but the illumination of character.” The key word of course, is “incident;” what the dictionary defines as “A specific occurrence or event that occurs in connection or relationship to something else.”

How does this affect the creation of character? Take a look at Mystic River – the entire film is based on an event that occurs when a young boy named Dave is abducted. Twenty-five years later that incident/situation is recreated when Jimmy’s daughter is brutally murdered. And the question is: did history repeat itself? Did Dave (Tim Robbins) kill her?

Does character determine incident and does that incident reveal character? It’s something to think about when you’re approaching the creation of character. The question was: how can we expand and enlarge our character’s life experience so he/she becomes more real, believable and true?

So, I began thinking about what tools I could create that would benefit the writer. I turned back to my acting days, and remembered when I was doing stage work in LA and San Francisco, some of the exercises I did when I was writing a character biography. I remembered when I was being mentored by the great French Film Director, Jean Renoir, and created an exercise that isolated a major event in my character’s life that impacted him when he was very young, say, between 8 – 18 years. Sometimes, the event could be younger or older, but most of the time it occurs during these formative years. The more I thought about it, the more I began thinking about how an acting exercise could benefit me as a writer. Could I use that in my writing workshops? If I could create an environment where the writer understands how the actor creates character and the actor learns how the writer creates character, both would benefit from the exercise. In that way, both engage in an interchange of ideas in order to expand and broaden the ability of creating riveting characters.

Writers and actors have a great deal in common. From my own experience as a writer and an actor, I know we approach our characters from different perspectives. The writer approaches character based on an idea, or notion, or experience, of WHO the character is, WHAT forces are working, and HOW those forces generate a history which leads to a dramatic need, and finally, an action.
On the other hand, an actor approaches character from words written on the page, an interpretation based, in part, on the dialogue and action written in the screenplay. The actor interprets the words, invents a history, creates motivation, gestures and accents, determines the kind of clothes the character wears, and then brings personal experience into the expression of the role they’re playing.

Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, to find out what actors can learn from writers and what writers can learn from actors? If writers did this exercise, they could get a clearer understanding of how dialogue effectively portrays character, directly and indirectly. Actors could learn how to build character from an idea, or notion, into full-bodied, three-dimensional portraits of real human beings.

When you’re sitting down facing a blank sheet of paper, where do you begin? At the beginning, of course: WHAT is your story about? WHO is your story about? Can you define it? Articulate it? Once you know your character’s DRAMATIC NEED, POINT OF VIEW, ATTITUDE, and how they change during the course of the story, you can begin to color the textural landscape of the character.

So I created an exercise called the Circle of Being. I call it the Circle of Being because if you draw your character’s life as a circle, then slice it up like a pie, you can create an overview of the person’s life into physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual incidents. These events can, and often will, actively affect your character’s life during the emotional through line of the screenplay.

If you go into your character’s life and ask yourself what traumatic incident might have occurred in your character’s life when he or she was between the ages of 8 and 18, you can create an emotionally charged incident or event that strongly influences and impacts your character’s life. Do this exercise and you can discover what the Circle of Being might be: the death of a parent at an early age; the family’s move to a new city or country; the betrayal of a friend; an incident or event that causes a severe traumatic scar like Mystic River. It could be a physical event or injury. In Seabiscuit, the four main principles are strongly affected by loss: Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) loses his son; Red Pollard (Tobey Macquire) loses his parents; Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) loses his freedom; and Seabiscuit is deemed worthless and given away. The horse is sold to a trainer who forces the animal to train according to the way he thought he should be trained. The animal literally loses his identity; he doesn’t know “how to be a horse, anymore,” as Tom Smith says.

In Silence of the Lambs, the loss of Jodi Foster’s father at the age of nine is an experience from which she has never recovered; her loss follows her through her encounters with Hannibal Lecter. We could say the entire action of the film is about the search for her father; that Hannibal Lecter becomes her guide, her mentor, one of the three father figures she encounters during the script. Her dramatic need is to find the serial killer, but her emotional need is to find and complete her relationship with her father. This can be seen in several flashback sequences throughout the script.

Once you’ve defined this Circle of Being incident or event in your character’s life, you can explore its emotional and physical impact on the character. Then it becomes a powerful force enhancing and enriching the texture of the character.
As I started working with writers and actors, I began to see how effective the Circle of Being exercise is. In one of my exercise/discussion sessions, as the writers and actors began exploring their characters, I told them about the Circle of Being. Once they understood the concept, the results in their character development were truly amazing. I saw very clearly that the Circle of Being exercise is a powerful force guiding and generating the character’s dramatic need throughout the entire screenplay. Participants found it gave their characters a profound sense of purpose and action and so helped to forge the action of the plot line.

What I found is that this particular exercise was extremely beneficial in the creation of character. After all, this event is what forms your character’s experience, molds and shapes the very fabric of being. When you’re doing research on your character, moving through the life events, it’s quite possible you can uncover some kind of an incident or episode in your character’s life that emotionally parallels and impacts the story line. The influence of this traumatic Circle of Being event could conceivably affect the entire course of the screenplay.

Case in point: Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill is a story of revenge. In one sequence, the animated sequence, we meet O-Ren (Lucy Liu) as a child hiding under her parent’s bed while a Japanese Gangster ruthlessly kills her mother and father. In that moment, she swears eternal revenge upon the man who so hideously murdered her parents. Several years later, she entices the gangster into the bedroom and in the throes of passion, takes out a knife and ruthlessly kills him and his bodyguards, thus revenging the death of her parents. This relentless desire for revenge fuels O-Ren’s insatiable drive to take over the entire Japanese underworld. It molds her character and shapes her destiny for the rest of her life. She is who she is because of that one event which happened to her as a child.

In Kill Bill, this theme of revenge is the basis of the entire storyline. Uma Thurman is out to kill Bill and revenge his ruthless act of killing everyone, including her unborn child, at her wedding. Bill’s ruthless act is what put her in a coma for many years. The entire film is the result of the character’s Circle of Being.

If you look at the significance of the Circle of Being, it can be any defining incident that embraces those internal, external, emotional, physical and background forces working on the character’s life. So if you feel your character is too thin or one-dimensional, too passive or too reactive, or speaks in dialogue that is too direct or explanatory, one way to possibly solve the problem is to go back and explore his or her life in terms of the Circle of Being.

It brings amazing results.

Syd Field is a leading authority in the art and craft of screenwriting. His internationally acclaimed best-selling books include “Screenplay,” “The Screenwriter’s Workbook” and “The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver.” He has taught at Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, the AFI and many other noted institutions. He has been a special script consultant to 20th Century Fox, the Disney Studios, Universal and Tristar Pictures.

Source with permission: The Writers Store

Fair Use for Documentaries

By Jon M. Garon
Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell, PC

For documentary filmmakers to accurately depict their stories, they invariably need to rely on copyright’s fair use provisions significantly more than other filmmakers. This is particularly true if the documentary focuses on literary or visual works or incorporates copyrighted materials as background content, although the situations in which the documentary filmmaker may rely on fair use are not limited to these two categories.

Fair Use Basics

Fair use represents a limitation on the exclusive rights held by copyright holders. Under certain conditions, it allows third parties to use copyrighted content without the copyright holder’s permission. Broadly speaking, fair use is available for “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, . . . scholarship, or research.” In addition to these broad categories, fair use has also developed to protect the rights of researchers, such as documentary filmmakers, to make personal copies of entire works for their research archives, to enable owners of copyrighted works to make backup copies of materials, and to allow consumers to temporarily copy music, television, and film for personal enjoyment at a later time or in a different place.

Fair use is a very fact-specific balance between the rights of the copyright owner and the rights of the person seeking to make copies or to use content without permission. Because it is fact specific, the exact limitations of fair use are often subject to conjecture. Moreover, because of the significant cost of lawsuits, there is a tendency to be unnecessarily cautious regarding the interpretation of the law. Since filmmakers, producers, and distributors must manage not only the legal rights involved but also the costs associated with defending those rights, documentary filmmakers often feel pressured not to use content in ways in which lawyers would reasonably expect to be considered fair use. Nevertheless, fair use is not blanket permission to take copyrighted works that are readily available for licenses. A low production budget is not a basis for fair use.

The statutory provision of fair use emphasizes four factors to help courts determine whether the party copying material has acted legally.

In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include the:

* purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
* nature of the copyrighted work;
* amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
* effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The four fair use factors are balanced in the context of the fair use provision’s goal of providing public broad access to public discourse and a statutory tool to ease the tension between the Copyright Clause of the Constitution and the First Amendment. No single factor is determinative.

Broadly speaking, the law favors documentary film’s goals of public comment, so the first prong of the four-factor test will generally weigh in the favor of the filmmaker. This does not mean that the documentary must be ponderous or academic to benefit from the clause. Irreverent or polemic, comical or studious, all works improve public knowledge and thereby benefit the public. However, the first prong also specifies that to be considered fair use, a work’s appropriation of copyrighted material must be transformative in nature. A transformative use is one that changes the character of the copyrighted material. Quoting dialogue or showing a short clip as part of a critique of the material is transformative. Merely reproducing the content without comment does not transform it. Thus, if the documentary provides insight or criticism through the context in which the copyrighted material is used, it is much more likely to be considered fair use.

The second prong of the test reflects the fact that stronger copyright protection is given to fictional or highly creative works than to those that are factual. While ideas, facts, formulas, and processes are not even protected by copyright, the manner in which they are expressed is given modest copyright protection. Fair use offers very wide latitude to make use of such factual expressions, because copyright should never create a monopoly over facts or ideas.

For most documentary filmmakers, the most important aspects of the fair use test are the last two prongs. Under the third prong, the law makes clear that less is more. The smaller the portion of a copyrighted work one uses, the greater the chance it is considered fair use. Short quotes are more likely to be fair use than recitation of extensive passages; 30-second clips are more likely to be fair use than 5-minute sequences.

Similarly, the fourth prong balances the economic interests of the copyright holder with those of the documentary filmmaker or others who seek to use copyrighted works without permission. To the extent that the documentary film serves as a competing product with the copyright holder’s own work, it is less likely to be considered fair use. If the documentary filmmaker’s work does not threaten to replace the copyright owner’s work in the market, the documentary will more likely be considered fair use.

Documentaries about Media and Culture

The greatest challenge in the application of fair use provisions relates to documentaries that focus on media and culture. To effectively communicate, these documentaries often make extensive use of materials copy-righted by third parties. To the extent that the documentary filmmaker uses the source to illustrate his own editorial content, such clips generally do not require the copyright holder’s permission. However, the documentary must not become a direct competitor for the copyright holder’s work. For example, if a Three Stooges short is shown in its entirety, followed by footage of interviews with comics who learned their craft by watching the Three Stooges, the use of the short would not be fair use. In this example, the documentary filmmaker’s original content would have only a loose relationship to the copyrighted work, and the use of the entire short would turn the documentary into a commercial competitor of the original. If instead the filmmaker interspersed his original interviews with brief clips of the Three Stooges directly tied to the content of the new material, and each clip was no longer than was reasonably necessary to illustrate the original content, that would more likely be considered fair use.

Though not a legal standard, a practical standard that applies to other forms of research can also be applied to documentary filmmaking. Students are taught that using a single source is plagiarism but using five sources is research; the same practical rule may apply to the use of film clips. A documentary that takes all its clips from a single source is much more likely to feel the wrath of the copyright holder than a documentary that draws content from a number of sources. If the documentary’s emphasis is the impact of television comedy on pop culture, focus on a range of modern television comics rather than only on Jerry Seinfeld. If the real subject is Jerry Seinfeld, use a broader range of material than just his network television series.

Background and Incidental Content

Since a documentary filmmaker implicitly represents that his film is accurate and truthful, he should not alter the content of footage. He must avoid falsifying the trademarked goods, copyrighted materials, and other content captured while filming scenes as they unfold. This creates a significant challenge. Billboards, sculptures, posters, television broadcasts, ring tones, T-shirts, and other copyrighted works are ubiquitous. To strip these elements from a documentary would essentially falsify the film’s content.

At the same time, the filmmaker should take reasonable steps to limit these elements when practical and appropriate. If, for example, he is arranging sit-down interviews, then the space behind the interviewees in the frame should not include copyrighted works. If the interviews are taking place in the field and the camera operator has the opportunity to stand facing any direction, then she should move to the extent practical to avoid capturing a copyrighted work in the background just as she moves to control sunlight and shadow. In addition, the filmmaker should not try to use fair use as an excuse to incorporate material for which he did not get a license—say, by turning on a television in the background or otherwise staging the appearance of copyrighted material.

Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use

In 2005, a coalition of lawyers, law schools, and film industry advocates came together to help outline many of these principles. The effort served both to clarify the practices commonly used by professional documentary filmmakers and to help advocate that those practices meet the legal guidelines for fair use. The result of that project is the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use. The report is available from the American University Center for Social Media, which also has other projects related to online video and teaching.

The Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use outlines appropriate and inappropriate applications of fair use by documentary filmmakers. Like the advice offered throughout this book, the report’s recommendations can only lay out the various choices filmmakers can make. Ultimately, fair use remains rather fact specific, and filmmakers must decide for themselves when to seek permission and when to risk legal conflict.

Perhaps the most significant impact of the Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use has been its acceptance within the insurance industry. Coauthors of the statement have written about its impact: “The theory behind the Statement is that courts respect the views of responsible professionals about what kinds of uses are fair in their area of practice.” As a result of the industry acceptance, insurance companies are demonstrating stronger support for including fair use content in documentaries. “The four companies most used by U.S. documentary filmmakers — AIG, MediaPro, ChubbPro, and OneBeacon — all announced programs to cover fair use claims between January and May of 2007.” The result of the widespread support of the statement and adoption of its standards within the insurance industry is a normative change for acceptable practice that provides documentary filmmakers concrete guidance regarding the scope of risk associated with fair use claims.

This is part of a series of book excerpts from Independent Filmmaking, The Law & Business Guide for Financing, Shooting & Distributing Independent & Digital Films designed as an introduction to the many legal issues involved in the filmmaking process.

A 70 Minute Explaination on why “Star Wars: the Phantom Menace” sucked

Mike from Milwaukee puts together an epic review of “Star Wars: the Phantom Menace”. This is not just a blathering fan-boy rant, but a well crafted and often side-splittingly funny review of the suckage that was episode 1.

“In this opening segment I discuss the major flaw of The Phantom Menace which is the characters and the lack of connection with the audience.”

“Part two now focuses on the second biggest problem with the Phantom Menace, the story. The mystery plot lacking direction and emotional involvement was really the other big problem. No tension, no drama, no stakes. Characters aimlessly follow along the events.”

“Paaaaaart 3. Shit just got real.”

Part 4.

“Part 5 focuses on the real “Phantom Menace” which is Qui-gon Jinn. His character makes no sense as do his actions. I also focus on Anakin Skywalker and how that character sucks too.”

Part 6: “Things that don’t make sense at the ending and an analysis of light saber duels”

Part 7:

Writing to a Quota

by Gene Perret

Whenever I do interviews or seminars concerning my book, The New Comedy Writing Step by Step, interviewers and writers invariably ask “What’s the first thing a person should do if he or she wants to become a comedy writer?” My response is a two-parter and although it’s aimed primarily at comedy writing, it applies equally as well to all writing.

It might seem that the first part of the response is so obvious that it shouldn’t even have to be said. It is: If you want to become a comedy writer, start writing comedy. Yet, it does have to be said. A faculty member at one comedy writing seminar offered the attendees a worthwhile exercise they could work on once they got home. It was a series of suggestions that would entice them to write a few gags each week. The following year, a repeat attendee told the faculty member that it was the best writing assignment he had ever heard. “I’ve attended many writing conferences,” he said, “and nothing even came close to those exercises you offered.” The faculty member asked, “Did you turn out some good gags?” The student said, “Oh, I haven’t actually gotten around to doing it yet.” So it is necessary to say it: If you want to become a comedy writer, start writing comedy.

“But shouldn’t I take some classes first or get some sort of training before I start writing?” No. If you want to go bowling, you don’t go to bowling school or sign up for lessons. You simply go bowling. You’ll learn quickly enough how good you are and how much you have to learn.

Part two of my response is less obvious, but more important to your writing development. It is: Once you start writing, set a quota and stick to it.

What is a Writing Quota?

A comedy writing quota is a set number of jokes that you commit to writing each day. You might extend that to every other day, if that’s more convenient. If your schedule is really tight, you could even plan on a set number of gags each week. That would be the outer limit, though. If you go beyond one week, it ceases to be a quota.

How Many Jokes Should My Quota Be?

That’s up to you. The amount should be reasonably challenging. Push yourself slightly. Your quota might be five jokes a day. Perhaps it could be ten. Whatever amount you set should be somewhat demanding. As the body builders say, “No pain; no gain.”
Conversely, though, it should not be cruel. A number that is too demanding defeats the purposes of writing to a quota. The stress on you may be overwhelming. The quality of your writing will suffer. Finally, you might abandon the practice entirely.

Why Write to a Quota?

You may ask why you have to force yourself to write. Isn’t it better to write when the muse inspires you or when your own mood dictates? Certainly, if inspiration strikes, get to a keyboard. And, of course, anytime you feel like writing, write. However, professional writers don’t have the luxury of waiting for the ideal mood and moment. If a client calls with a demand or if a publisher issues a firm deadline, the writer must turn out product on schedule. It’s good to establish the habit of writing on demand now.

What are the Benefits of Writing to a Quota?

First, it gets you to write. Remember part one of my response to the original query: If you want to become a comedy writer, start writing. The only way to meet your quota of a set number of jokes each day is to write them.

Second, repetition is a learning process. Certainly writing every day is repetition. Often what you learn is subliminal. You acquire techniques and skills without even being aware of it. Recently I purchased a new car. In my previous car, the emergency brake was engaged by pushing down on a foot pedal on the floor. The new vehicle has an emergency brake that’s engaged by pulling up a lever that’s located on the center console. So what do I do? I stop the car, turn off the ignition, pull up the hand brake – and then slam my foot down on the floor where the foot pedal used to be. It’s a habit I learned through repetition. It’s hard to break. Writing to a quota will help you develop sound writing habits.

Third, writing to a quota builds writing momentum. There’s a certain inertial involved in the writing process. It takes a while to get the mind going, the ideas flying, and the fingers tapping on the keyboard. Some well-established writers say that they begin their writing day by retyping the last paragraph or the last page that they wrote the day before. Why? Because it overcomes that inertia. It slides them into the writing mode. One comedy writer I know began each day by composing a humorous limerick. He felt when his imagination was stimulated enough to get a limerick on paper, he was then ready to begin to turn out creative comedy.

Stopping and restarting is inefficient. Producing quality work on a daily basis reduces that inefficiency. Your continued momentum makes it easier to write more and better material. To illustrate, you’ve probably seen golfers on TV take a few practice swings before hitting the ball. They’re trying to establish the correct tempo and the feel for the shot they’re about to attempt. When the practice swing feels just right, the golfer steps up and tries to hit the ball using that same stroke. Consider how silly it would be to make the correct practice swing and then come back the next day and hit the ball. All they learned from the practice swings would be lost by then. By writing consistently to a quota, you don’t allow yourself to lose that valuable momentum you’ve already gained.

Fourth, a writing quota pushes your creativity a bit. One problem I’ve noticed with most writers is that we are inclined to quit too soon. Comedy writers quit too soon on both the premise they’re working on and the individual gags. The successful cartoonist, Charles Schulz, once said that he couldn’t understand why his colleagues settled for the first gag they came up with. He wanted them to think it through a little bit more and come up with more inventive humor.

A quota pushes us to be more productive and creative. If your quota is to write five jokes a day, you can’t quit after writing just four. You must create that fifth joke. As Charles Schulz implies in his statement, pushing yourself a bit further produces more creative material.

Fifth, sticking to a writing quota will produce better quality material. How? Simply as a result of the quantity of material you produce. Assuming that your quota is reasonably demanding, it should force you to write more than you would otherwise. As a result, you’ll have more jokes to select from.

Consider two high schools. One has an enrollment of 3000 students; the other has only 500 students. Which school would you expect to have the better football team? The one with the larger enrollment would have a much bigger pool of talent to choose from. Consequently, they should expect to field a better lineup. By writing more jokes than you normally would, you’ll have more gags to select from. Your finished product – the team you eventually field – should be top quality.

Sixth, strictly adhering to your quota promotes writing discipline. Discipline is a major attribute for any writer. For almost 30 years I wrote comedy material for Bob Hope. Hope would call with requests at any time of the day or night. When he called, I had to go to work – but not without some complaining. If I was particularly busy when the request for comedy material came, I would say, “Why does he have to put me to work now when I have so much other work to do?” If I wasn’t engaged when the request came, I would say, “Why does he give me work now when I finally have a chance to relax?” So, if I didn’t have the time, I didn’t want to write. If I did have the time, I didn’t want to write. Nevertheless, I had to write when the call came.

That’s what professional discipline is. That’s the training that a writing quota offers you. Sometimes you’ll be too busy to meet your quota. Other times, you’ll enjoy your relaxation so much that you won’t want to bother meeting your quota. In both instances, you should meet that quota.

Seventh, writing to a quota will enable you to build your repertoire. In developing or furthering your writing career, you’ll want to maintain some showcase material, some audition pieces. Clients, producers, editors, or publishers will want to see representative samples of your writing. By writing to a quota, you’ll continually update your showcase material. You’ll constantly build up fresh, current material of high quality.

Consider this quote from comedian Drew Carey about a regular writing routine: “You have to treat comedy – writing and performing – like a job. One of the ways I did that was to set minimums for myself – like writing ten jokes a day. I told other comics about this and they did it and it helped them. I got really good feedback from the ten-jokes-a-day method.

“If you write ten jokes a day and you get one good joke – that’s all you want out of the whole day – and you do that five days a week, that’s five good jokes a week. If you do that all year, 50 weeks a year with two weeks off, that’s an hour’s worth of material. If you’re a stand-up comic and you can come up with an hour a year, that’s amazing. It really, really is. You’ll be the most prolific comic on the road.

“I’m telling you, set a minimum for each day and stick to it and you really can’t go wrong.”

Why Not Try it Yourself?

Pick a topic that you want to write a routine about. It can be a current event, a generic premise, or even a roast of a friend. Determine that you’ll write – let’s say five jokes a day on that topic. Do that for five days a week, you can take the weekends off. That should produce 25 jokes a week.

Stick with that quota for one month. At the end of this assignment, you’ll have 100 gags on your topic. From that, after you edit and select your best, you should produce a solid monologue of 20 to 25 gags.

Even if you fall short of that output, you should wind up with a solid chunk of comedy material that is at least eight to ten gags long. That’s pretty good productivity for any comedy writer.

Try it and have fun with it.

Gene Perret has written and produced many of TV’s top-rated shows, winning three Emmy Awards as part of “The Carol Burnett Show” staff. He wrote for Phyllis Diller and was on Bob Hope’s writing staff for almost 30 years, the last 12 of those as Hope’s head-writer. He has published over 40 books, including one of the top selling books on comedy writing, “Comedy Writing Step by Step.” His most recent is an instruction novel on comedy writing called, “Breakfasts with Archangel Shecky.” Contact him at [email protected]

Source with permission: The Writers Store

A Nineteenth-Century Guide to Screenwriting

by Michael Halperin

Victorians’ Secrets: A Nineteenth-Century Guide to Screenwriting, or How the Victorians Invented the Screenplay

It may seem peculiar in the 21st century to discuss screenwriting in the same breath as anything that had to do with the 19th century. What does one have to do with the other? After all, the only visual representation that remotely resembled a motion picture was Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope: a revolving device consisting of a series of still shots photographed in sequence that appeared to move when viewed through a narrow viewing port. It had no story, only the novelty of movement. The imagination of the viewer filled in the rest.

Once motion pictures began telling stories, filmmakers looked to familiar models on which to build screenplays. The modern novel born in the 19th century gave them the model they needed.

In order to understand how Victorian fiction created the basic structure of motion pictures, we have to examine the times in which those novels were written. The years between the mid-19th century and the early teens of the 20th century resonate with us into the 21st century. Parallels exist between our time and an age that we have romanticized out of all proportion to the truth.

The so-called Victorian Era was rife with upheaval. The Industrial Revolution roared into Western civilization much the same way as the Technological Revolution roared into our own lives. It brought with it a disruption of social values. Middle class entrepreneurs found themselves swimming in money. Think dot-commers. Greed and wealth went hand-in-hand. Think Enron.

Aside from money, society also saw changing values in many other ways. While we look on Victorians as sexually corseted, diaries and newspapers of the time reported increases in violent sex crimes. A plague of sexually transmitted diseases — notably syphilis — affected every strata of society. Consider that HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are with us today.

Victorian-era writers reacted to their world in a number of ways. Jane Austen surveyed the scene with a deep sense of irony — an irony that finds itself at its height with ‘Emma.’ The theme of the novel is so modern that it became the source for a contemporary motion picture, ‘Clueless,’ written and directed by Amy Heckerling, as well as a film written and directed by Douglas McGrath that takes place within its own time.

Edith Wharton’s ‘Age of Innocence’ examines New York society in 1870 with a satiric eye, but it could be New York or Los Angeles, 2002. Success necessitates that an attorney marry a trophy wife. But he has a wandering eye and searches for the seductiveness of an illicit love affair with an exotic woman who has a checkered past.

The great Victorian writer, Charles Dickens, examined every aspect of life during those times: From the grimiest London cesspool to the heights of courage and daring. Although ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ takes place during the French Revolution of 1775, it reflects the mores and values of his time. Dickens constantly searched for soul in an age gone mad. So, too have we searched for soul within the confines of Vietnam or the Gulf War or Bosnia-Herzogovina or in the Middle East. In the same way that Dickens reverted to an earlier time where heroism could be accepted, in our time, we turn back to ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or ‘Band of Brothers’ where we can espouse simpler truths even if the veil of time obscures the terrible details of war’s horrors.

With his novels of the first decade of the twentieth-century, E. M. Forster predicted enormous changes in society. Pretense, Forster believed, was the mask behind which polite society hid its prejudices against the poor, against ethnic minorities, against all those ‘others’ who didn’t fit within the framework of the ‘haves.’ His stories peeled away pretense and echo our own times in which prejudice still raises its ugly head. We continue, as they did in 1910, to claim that the ‘other’ will destroy our society. Today, France votes for a Fascist in reaction to its minority population. Italy votes for a radical right wing government with its attendant bigotry.

Most novels of the era have an episodic structure. Almost every chapter ends with a hook to get the reader back into the story much the same way that screenwriters use hooks, large and small, to lead viewers from one scene to another.

Scenes carefully lay out with precision descriptions of the environment and carefully delineate characters who drive the story forward rather than go along for the ride. It’s as if the writers understood that visual elements of stories are as important as their literary qualities.

And why not? Museum art and calendar art or daguerreotypes and tintype photos were the only visuals available. Perhaps some people had a stereopticon. But storytelling was the main source of entertainment.

Even if a person couldn’t read, someone could read to them. Therefore, it became necessary to conjure up wonderful images of places and people who occupied those spaces. And since one did not read a novel all at once, it had to have cliffhangers so that the listener yearned to come back for more.

Writers such as Charles Dickens first published their novels a chapter at a time in weekly newspapers. The object was to make sure readers always bought the next installment. Something interesting had to happen at the end of each chapter. Since most writers were paid by the word, Dickens made sure he wrote enough to cover his bills.

How cinematic was Dickens? He understood one of the main conventions of a motion picture. He understood the ‘inciting incident’ necessary to start the action. The inciting incident produces the central core of the story — the reason for the story’s existence. As a result of this incident, the main character or characters must fight or claw toward the resolution that appears in the third act.

Most of us, who were forced to read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ when we were in high school or college, only remember the opening of the novel: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Despair, it was the season of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going straight to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…’

And the end with Sidney Carton’s heroic, melodramatic speech as he approached the guillotine in place of the romantic lead: ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, then I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.’

But what starts it all? Above all things, the theme of ‘Tale’ is that of rape. Real and metaphoric rape creates the dynamics of the story. An evil aristocracy entombs Dr. Manette in the Bastille when he discovers they have raped and murdered a young peasant woman. Everyone becomes victim of the rape: Manette’s daughter, Lucy, married to Charles Darnay, a son of the aristocrats who is condemned to death by the French Tribunal, and, lastly, Sidney Carton who takes Darnay’s place. Metaphorically, the book describes in vivid detail the rape of a nation gone made with bloodlust.

Dickens writes the book in classic three-act structure. Book One titled ‘Recalled to Life’ sets up the conflict to come. Book Two, ‘The Golden Thread,’ the longest section, presents the conflict and tension. Book Three, ‘The Track of the Storm’ brings the romantic, heroic, melodramatic resolution to a close.

W. P. Lipscomb and S. N. Behrman, the screenwriters of the 1935 version of ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ follow the book almost word for word, image for image. It’s as if the novel was a detailed treatment, including the dialogue.

Dickens used dramatic hooks or dramatic dialogue to draw us from one chapter to another — or from one scene to another.

At the end of Chapter Three, Book One, Dr. Manette, now rescued and riding in the Dover Mail stage, raves about his burial in the Bastille. A disturbed passenger blurts out: ‘Eighteen years…Gracious Creator of the day! To be buried alive for eighteen years!’

The last paragraph of Book Two that leads us into the third act has Charles Darnay shipping out from Dover to France in order to save the life of a servant accused of being a monarchist because he served Darney’s family. Darnay, convicted in absentia by the Revolutionary Tribunal, places his life in jeopardy for a noble cause.

Edith Wharton’s novel ‘Age of Innocence,’ written during the Edwardian period, maintains many of the Victorian forms. To capture how Wharton and other writers of the period wrote cinematically, all we have to do is read a scene from the book and then take a look at how Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese translated it to the screen. Very little changes. The screenwriters make a few juxtapositions and deletions because they deal with a different medium, and it requires its own language — the language of cinema.

Wharton carefully peels back layer upon layer of each character until they become revealed or exposed. Surprises arise, but always based on a careful foreshadowing of events. The author explores character as if she held an advanced degree in psychology. She isn’t alone. Austen, Dickens, Forster and others in the pantheon of writers of 100 or 120 years ago exhibited the same insight.

In ‘Howards End,’ E.M. Forster introduces a modern woman — Margaret — who makes the first advance against the wealthy tradesman, Wilcox. The author sets the scene with the Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen. Margaret will eventually marry the newly rich and widowed tradesman Henry Wilcox, setting off a chain of events that will change views on class and attitudes toward society.

Cinematically, Forster often opens each chapter with a piece of action or dialogue that grabs the reader immediately. He doesn’t tiptoe around and wait for something to happen. He engages the reader immediately. A lesson that screenwriters use over and over again to keep the action moving.

In one chapter, he begins with a shocking statement: ‘We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.’ The screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, restates the prose as dialogue: ‘A word of advice. Don’t take up a sentimental attitude over the poor. The poor are poor. One is sorry for them, and there it is.’

The line expresses everything there is to know about Henry Wilcox, one of the newly wealthy merchants of England who, having amassed wealth, now takes his place in the House of Parliament. ‘Howards End’ explores the breaking down of a rigid class system.

Another chapter begins with ‘Leonard accepted the invitation to tea next Saturday. But he was right; the visit proved a conspicuous failure.’ The reader is set up for the coming storm in which Leonard feels used by Margaret and Helen Schlegel. The storm that bursts forth eventually changes Henry Wilcox who comes to accept, through Margaret, that the poor are poor, but are not necessarily doomed to perpetual poverty. He also comes to accept that women have capabilities beyond that of mothers and wives.

Those wishing to write screenplays would do well to study these writers and others from the period to understand structure, character and story development. How-to books have their uses — certainly as references — but nothing can take the place of reading novels by writers who understand and explore the human condition.

To understand both text and subtext in a story, you have to read these authors along with Emily Brontë, whose ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ have been reborn again and again in film and television. You should study Joseph Conrad whose ‘Heart of Darkness’ was reincarnated by John Milius and Frances Ford Coppola as ‘Apocalypse Now.’ Digest Mary Shelley, who wrote one of the definitive horror novels/social commentaries with “Frankenstein.’ Discover the melodramatic, gothic George du Maurier, not as well known, but who gave us a character film and TV writers use over and over again: ‘Svengali’ from his book, ‘Trilby.’

Without them, cinema might not exist in its present form. Filmmakers in the nascent years of the industry had only those references for making motion pictures. That alone might be the reason so many early films were loaded with melodramatic devices. Unfortunately, the lessons learned from reading the books — or just hearing about them — only touched the surface of the material rather than delving deep into the subject matter.

Part of the reason came from a distrust of the audience. Filmmakers, no matter if they made dramas or pie-in-the-face comedies, felt that their audiences wouldn’t sit still for thought-provoking cinema. They presented ‘amusements’ rather than subtext. It took Griffiths in the United States, Lang in Germany, Abel in France and other great storytellers to understand that the great novels they read contained lessons they could use in the creation of a new language of cinema. Those lessons became the mainstay of motion pictures into the sound era where screenwriters extracted methodologies with which we have become familiar from storytelling of the previous 30 to 50 years.

We might have discovered all this without the modern novel that began in the 19th century. Or it may have taken a different direction. Certainly, the three-act structure has been with us since humans started telling stories around the smoking embers of campfires. However, the way in which we develop characters, the way in which we create dramatic devices to draw viewers deeper into the story, was the result of novels written for a public anxious to read about class struggle and struggles within class or who wanted to smile with the author’s satiric or ironic view of the world.

Therefore, while not immediately apparent, writers of the Victorian era initiated the language of cinematic style within their prose.

Author, playwright and screenwriter Michael Halperin teaches screenwriting and broadcasting at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles as well as a writing seminar at the American Film Institute and screenwriting seminars at UCLA’s Writers Program. He has written for popular television programs, among them ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’ ‘Falcon Crest,’ ‘Quincy’ and the animated series ‘Masters of the Universe.’ He is the author of three books on writing and co-author of the best-selling novel for children, ‘Jacob’s Rescue.’

Source with permission: The Writers Store

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