Archive for April, 2008

Why is it easier to write straight screen stories about straightforward guys? Well, for one a movie is a story told in pictures. The main ingredient in a screenplay is character (s). And you have to tell a story about this character, as much as possible, through pictures.

Dialogue is just to supplement your character and should be kept at a minimum. In any case your character is what (s)he does, not says. If a man verbally professes to respect women yet, when no one is looking, he slyly pinches a woman’s bottom, what kind of a man is he? What he does or what he says?

If you rely too much on dialogue your screenplay will be slow and plodding. That’s what the problem was with ‘Cheeni Kum’ (Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu go on and on and on…yawn) and U Me Aur Hum ( remember the unending scene on the deck with the camera panning back and forth endlessly from Ajay Devgan to Kajol?)

There are other ways to build chemistry – A look, a sudden tensing of posture when another character enters the room etc. Wherever possible you have to find a way to ‘show’ and not ‘tell’. Don’t tell me that a character loves/hates another. Let me figure that out for myself.

Actually this holds true even for novels. For example there are two ways to write the following:
“I don’t have time for this,” John said. And then John turned and started walking away.
“I don’t have time for this,” John said, turning and walking away.

Isn’t the second one more evocative, not to mention economical?

And that is why it is so difficult to adapt complex novels. Or, for that matter, write original screenplays about such characters.

In complex novels characters often have multiple and conflicting motives. They are morally ambiguous and wonderfully unpredictable. And just when the audience is staring to get a handle on the character, the character goes and does something diametrically opposite.

It’s easy to write about her motivation in a novel because it’s all happening in her head. But how the devil do you show it on screen without resorting to too much dialogue or a voice over?
A good writer can find ways of doing that, even for screen. But she usually needs the support of a deft director and a sublime cast. Just think, would Taxi Driver have been half as effective without Martin Scorcese and Robert de Niro?

And before I’m accused me of contradicting myself, let me point out that in Taxi Driver the voice over tool is not used as a convenient tool to progress the story but to show the Travis Bickle’s dissonance with the rest of the world.

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How do you distinguish between good and bad writing (after the standard quality of language test of course)?

I would think how the narrative is structured, i.e., the setup of conflicts and how they’ve been handled/ resolved. And since conflict emanates from human beings, reality which is in direct dissonance their wants and needs, another test of good writing is the depth/complexity of its characters.

You’ll notice that in most pulp or pop fiction the characters are clear cut. They are either or good or bad. There are the usual deviations like the good cop who used to be a drunk or the prostitute with a heart of gold. But before the movie/novel ends they usually redeem themselves. Even the self serving money minded Private Eye in B grade detective fiction usually does something to merit deliverance.

In literary fiction characters tend to veer towards shades of grey. They tend to be have both goodness and evil in them. And often we as readers/viewers don’t necessarily know who to root for.  You like one guy at a particular moment in the story and hate him at the next.

What kind of stories do you want to write? The question is best answered by answering another one – what do you want out of it? If you want obscene amounts of money via film rights, the answer if go for the former. If, however, a booker is what you’re aiming for, go for the latter.

Most books that get adapted for films have clear cut distinctions between the good and the bad guys.  On the other hand, complex stories of complex characters, where everyone has significant failings, rarely make it to the screen. Lately someone was brave enough to attempt Atonement and it even did well commercially. But not as well as The Lord of the Rings.

As one of my readers mentioned, most human beings are “promiscuous” creatures. Yet we (or at least a large majority of us, myself included) as consumers tend story gravitate towards movies with tangible “heroes”. Which brings me to the point I raised in my previous post – Is cinema escapist?

Yes, that is one reason for sure. But I think there is another more significant reason. Complex stories with murky characters are notoriously difficult to adapt for screen. If they are not handled adeptly viewers can end up hating everybody, or worse, confused.

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As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I watched a lot of films over the weekend. One of them being the classic “The Bicycle Thief. Yet I chose an offbeat film, The Chumscrubber to write about.

Ironically, the Chumscrubber grabbed me immediately and I’ve had difficulty in making up my mind about the undisputed classic., The Bicycle Thief. Don’t get me wrong. It is a beautifully shot film and very lyrical and all that. And I think I’ve finally understood why it left me feeling dissatisfied.

Spoiler Warning

The Bicycle Thief is the story of a young man who’s going through hard times. With a great deal of difficulty he gets a job for which owning a bicycle is a prerequisite. On the first day of the job his bicycle gets stolen and though he looks everywhere for it, he never finds it.

You see, for me for a film to be good, one of the two conditions must be fulfilled.

If it is a sad story, treated seriously, the ending must be hopeful.

If it is sad ending, the film should be treated in a lighter vein like Jaane Bhi do Yaaron.

A sad story, treated seriously, with a hopeless ending, well, why don’t I just kill myself?

I’ve had many arguments with many film aficionados on this and there is no right answer. Whether or not you agree with me will depend on what cinema is for you? For me it is purely escapist.

Which brings me to my next topic of discussion, should your characters be clearcut or morally ambiguous? More on that tomorrow.

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One of my social networking friends posted this snippet from a film which I thought was so apt for all those people who say they want to become writers but are yet to begin on anything. The usual excuse for that is ‘I’m thinking about what to write.’ I know instinctively they never will.

Here goes…

An author (Forrester) sits his protege (Jamal) in front of a typewriter. When Forrester asks why he isn’t typing, Jamal replies, “I’m just thinking.”

And Forrester says: “No…no thinking. That comes later. You write your first draft with your heart, and you rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is to write, not to think.”

In order to be successful at anything, you have to do it over and over and over again until it becomes a habit.

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I’ve finally had a break through! I’ve been grappling with the plot of my second novel for the past one week and nothing worthwhile was coming out. There were all these bits of paper strewn about some covered in ink from top to bottom (one of my good days) and some with barely a line written on them (one of the not so good ones). I don’t know about you but I find writing on paper easier when I’m outlining my novels/screenplays. Basically paper works best for me when I’m clearing out my head.

Anyway, frustration was creeping and I had begun scratching on walls.

And finally, yesterday things fell into place. I’m really excited about the story and cannot wait to begin to plunge myself in writing it. There are still some snags and loose ends but I’m sure those will also work themselves out once I start writing and getting into my characters heads – their motivations, deep dark secrets, insecurities etc. Right now they are still just outlines on paper.

When you are writing a murder mystery, there are many things you have to consider. You have to answer at least four basic questions before you can even begin writing. The questions are – What, Who, Why, How. The reason is simple – you have to start seeding it right from the beginning. Even if the crime does not take place right away (though it should, but more on that later), the characters’ actions and whereabouts have to detailed.

Once you have answered what, who, why and how, the rest of the work is relatively easier. You can embellish it with other characters, other prime suspects and their motivations, alibis and red herrings.  It is usually the former that takes much of your time, partly because detective/crime fiction has evolved over the years and every conceivable plot has been done.

So there’s pressure to come up with something novel (read: convoluted plots) without resorting to murdering evil twins, butlers and monkeys/snakes. Also while we are at it other big no-nos are strangers, burglars and the detective himself/herself unless you can come up with an intriguing way of handling it. Impossible, usually. Jeffrey Archer has done it nicely in one of his short stories (it’s about a courtroom drama around a crime of passion. I forget the name of the story and the anthology.).

How I envy Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. Those were simpler times.

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I know I haven’t been posting on the blog but I’ve just been so busy! I’ve been writing my next novel which is coming along nicely, I’ve been busy catching up with movies and I’ve been busy with interviews etc.

During this weekend I caught up with several films I’ve been meaning to catch but never did – Transamerica, Bicycle thief and Chumsrubber. All of them are great films, but the one that impressed me the most is The Chumscrubber.

Chumscrubber is an extremely popular video game in which the protagonist annihilates competition using his own severed head. Eponymous film is a dark film about the modern urban society. It is a study in a society comprising insulated individuals who go through life popping pills/alcohol to feel good.  They don’t want anyone, they don’t need anyone. Who wants to be happy the hard way when you can buy instant happiness, right?

Chumscrubber begins with the suicide of Troy Johnson who is school’s pill supplier and the protagonist, Dean Stiffle’s (Jamie Bell) best friend, though, as Dean is at pains to point out, “We just hung out a few times, that’s all.”

Dean discovers Troy Johnson hanging by a rope in his room during one Mrs. Johnson’s pool parties. Though shaken, Dean does not tell anybody in the party because he thinks they just won’t care. He is right. They don’t. Dean’s own father, Dr. Stiffle, a bestselling author of psychiatric books, treats how son like a lab rat. In a show of concern over Dean’s attitude towards Troy’s death he invites him to chat man-to-man, only to make research notes for his next book. 

While parents still try and maintain a veneer of interest in their children’s activities, children don’t even accord their parents that courtesy, often cutting them off mid-sentence. Parents think nothing of disciplining their children because to do that you have to admit there’s a problem first, right? And who wants to deal with that?

Anyway, Troy’s death throws everything out of gear in this outwardly ebullient but precariously balanced society because one, who will supply pills to the kids and two, now they’ll have to deal with it. As someone mentions in the film, “But nothing like this has ever happened before!”

Troy’s mother, Mrs. Johnson (Glenn Close) reacts by seemingly losing it. She arrives on the Stiffle doorstep with an empty casserole tray, supposedly to thank Mrs. Stiffle for her thoughtfulness post Troy’s death. Though the way repeats over and over, “everybody’s been so nice!” leads us to suspect that the opposite is the case. And indeed during this exchange Mrs. Stiffle is forced to admit defensively, “But I didn’t bring a casserole….I was meaning to call but you just get so busy.” And then Mrs. Johnson goes about calling everybody with the same message, “In no way do I hold you responsible for Troy’s death,” which leads us to suspect that it’s a transference of her own guilt.

Dean deals with it by donning a cloak of impermeability and indifference. 

Troy’s death has an unexpected fallout. Billy, the school bully kidnaps Dean’s brother, Charlie, to force Dean to hand over Troy’s stash of drugs. Only Billy and his gang get the wrong Charlie. They get Charlie Bradley who’s the son of Mrs. Teri Bradley (Rita Wilson), the recently estranged wife of Officer Bradley. And now Teri Bradley is all set to marry Mayor Michael Ebbs (Ralph Fiennes). In fact, she’s so busy planning her wedding that she fails to notice her son’s missing for two whole days! Or rather she prefers to believe that her son has gone gallivanting, so that it doesn’t interfere with her wedding plans. In fact, she is even upset with Mrs. Johnson because the latter is holding a memorial service for her son on the same day. “How dare she keep the memorial on Sunday! Doesn’t she know it’s my wedding?”

Once Billy realizes he’s got the wrong Charlie, he decides to keep him hostage anyway to force Dean’s hand. Charlie, on his part, is happy to go along because this is probably the maximum attention he’s got.

Dean realizes that they’ve got the wrong Charlie figures it’s no skin off his nose. Except that he does care. So he agrees to get the pills for Billy. Only, at the last minute Dean’s brother, Charlie switches the pills leading to the denouement of the film. So in a way, Troy Johnson is the ultimate Chumscrubber

With a theme like this, it is very easy to go wrong. Yet the screenplay is cleverly crafted and razor sharp. The writers take us to the brink and then just as we are about to go over, pull us back. Even though it is dark, it has us laughing at several places. The key is balance and is often repeated in the film, in a different context of course. The direction is tightly controlled which is a tribute to the capabilities of the director, Arie Posin (also one of the writers, along with Zack Stanford). Though with a stellar cast like that it must have been easier, still, Arie Posin extracts some of their best performances.

Though relentlessly warning us about modern urban society’s inevitable march towards self destruction, the film ends with a hopeful message – it all a pattern. Everything happens for a reason and the trick is to capture the magic. Amazing Film! One of the best I’ve seen in a long time.


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Guys, do visit the Tail the Story page and catch up on Anna’s Adevntures os far. For those of you who came in late, it is like playing ‘tail the word’. I start the thread and invite anyone to join in and take the story forward from where the last person left off.

If you are interested in taking the story forward do drop me a mail and I’ll post it along with your URL.

Have fun!

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