Keeping an Eye On Format
By John Jarvis.
When I was in Hollywood, one of my first jobs was that of script reader. Work! A kind of magic word in LA. Most of us who didn’t have to stay at the studio grabbed a trusty old beach umbrella and towel, and headed for one of the many beaches around LA. (Making sure that you had a book cover over the script. Else, you’d suddenly find yourself will a lot of new friends. That is, unless you had a pit bull with you.)
Of course, this book-cover gimmick didn’t always work. It’s kind of like walking through a bad neighborhood dressed down so as not to get robbed. “You can’t fool all of the people all of …” But fooling most of them is usually enough. Usually.
I remember one sad case. A young man approached me one day and kicked sand into my eyes. Now the fact that he kicked sand, is not what made me sad (although it undoubtedly had something to do with it). What really got to me is that the young man introduced himself to me as someone who had come to Los Angeles to write his heart out. He had been a somewhat successful novelist and couldn’t understand why his scripts could not get past the reader.
Now I’m a pretty easy touch; I never quite got the hang of the big city (that’s one reason I left LA). Anyhow, I agreed to look at the young man’s script, expecting to find dialogue problems — a fairly common occurrence among novelists writing screenplays.
Yet the dialogue was fine, good even, and there was a lot of it, as there should be. And of course, being a novelist, the story and the character development were good, too. What’s more, the story was commercial. What’s left (all together now): Format!
That’s right. The reason the scripts didn’t sell was that they all lacked the standard format. Most beginning writers, or writers new to the screenplay idiom, don’t realize the importance of getting the format right. When I pointed this problem out to the young man, he turned his nose up in disgust. “I’ve been told that before,” he said, “but then I saw a script by William Goldman, and he didn’t follow all those silly rules.”
I managed to get out the words, “But William Goldman…” about two seconds before the sand landed in my eyes. The haughty young man turned away, pouting as he left, muttering something I can’t repeat.
But you know something, his stories really were pretty good. So I figured that maybe I was wrong. Maybe the young man would soon make a sale anyway. In the ensuing months I kept an eye out (the sand had been removed from it) for the man’s name in the list of credits put out by the WGA. When I couldn’t find his name there, I remember looking in directories and even on posters. Nothing. But somehow I still felt he would succeed.
It was almost a year later. Fortune had been good to me, and I found myself doing regular writing jobs for TV. Los Angeles is sunny quite a bit of the time, but in January it rains a lot. And so the thunder was crashing and the rain was coming down in Cinemascope as I made my way down Hollywood Boulevard. This street of pimps and prostitutes is also the street of beggars, lined up as if for a popular show that’ll never run. “Mister, mister,” they cry with their hollow voices, hollow hands stretched out.
I try to ignore them. Not that I’m without charity, but anyone who gives a lot, no matter how rich, will be poor by the time he gets to the end of the block. Yet one of them suddenly caught my attention. I looked at him there in the rain for a moment. Now, though, the haughty look was gone, replaced by something from the streets of London described by Dickens. And I suddenly found myself digging into my pockets to give him every cent I could find. When I started to speak, he turned away once again. And once again he muttered something that I can’t repeat — that is, except for one word: format (OK, maybe not, but it makes a better story). It was soon after that that I left LA.
What homage can I pay this wayward soul? I think he would be happy if I told you, my readers, what I tried to tell him on the beach that day. Yes, if your name is William Goldman — I would have said — you can break the rules of format. But those of us less gifted or less in demand had better get that part right. I can’t tell you how many times a script has been tossed out after merely thumbing through it and finding scene numbers, many camera directions, wrong margins, wrong length, and so on.
And I would have gone on to say that screenplay format is not difficult to learn, though it is difficult to write without using a formatting word processor program. Get one if at all possible! — I would have implored. Such a program will provide you with the correct format automatically. If you can’t afford a formatter, then at least get a good book on formatting — and make sure that it is new (a lot of the older books have incorrect information).
A pause, then I would have resumed: Don’t get me wrong. Concentrating too much on format is as bad as not concentrating enough. It is important though. Of course, a script without good story development will fail too. But give yourself the break of not having your script tossed out by the reader before it’s even been read. Some may never get through the producer’s door, but the reason always — always — has something to do with THE WRITER. Sure, there is such a thing as luck, but the lucky ones won’t last long if they have nothing to say, or nothing to say well. For remember, a good story well formatted will sooner or later catch someone’s eye. And for one’s eye, a good story is a lot more pleasant than sand
Most of the films discussed in this section are important to the writer’s education, and are mostly good. Perhaps an exception is the fluff piece Dante’s Peak, but as it is the only current example of its Type and Category, it is included here.
All disaster films are in the Action Category. They range in that Category from Revenge to Supernatural Transformation. However, the general disaster Story Type is Locale Adventure. Indeed, this Story Type applies 99 percent of the time because the antagonist is nature (or related to nature). Although disaster films are rarely more than general entertainment, Dante’s Peak is one of the better recent films of this Type. Although it pales before some of the classics of the genre, I would recommend seeing it only for a study in this Type and Category.
This is, according to some reviewers, only fair, but it packs a hard emotional punch. Indeed, we weep with the characters in this film, because we mostly identify with them, if not in race, in spirit — just as we weep for the Southerners when watching Birth of a Nation. Both films, perhaps, exaggerate the full truth, but both present a truth of their own. Art does not require the truth of a historian, else Richard III would no longer be presented.
In any case, the film is in the Theme Category, because it deals with ideas rather than simply plots. The Type is Revenge.
Speaking of Theme-Revenge Story Types, Hamlet is enjoying another revival. Shakespeare uses, as do most great writers, a mythological structure and character development. Indeed, it could be argued that writing mythologically makes a classic. Study this story to see what makes it tick. There are few better.
The English Patient
Where, then, is our modern Hamlet? Or maybe, more to the point, where is our modern Romeo and Juliet? I have praised The English Patient, not only for its beauty, but also for its structure. As with the Shakespeare plays, the combination of mythological writing with the Theme Category creates an unforgettable experience.
This film has been around since the first of the year and shows no immediate signs of disappearing. Indeed, it is still on the list of top grossing films, and its nomination for Academy Awards can’t hurt. Just as with the Star Wars trilogy, we need to ask ourselves why some writing succeeds hugely and why some is ephemeral.
The Story Type, by the way, is Intense Love.
As it differs so greatly in meaning depending on its Category, the Coming of Age story is one of the most illusive of all Story Types. While this Type under the Action Category deals primarily with teenage sexual awakening, under the Theme Category it deals with a young person’s growth in beliefs.
In Shine, a Theme-Category Coming of Age story, we find a film that illustrates that difference. But if Shine were a mere study piece it would most likely not be here. No, it is an enjoyable film too.
The Star Wars Trilogy
It is fortunate that the Star Wars trilogy has been reissued during this introductory month of StoryCraftNet, for this trilogy is one of the best current examples of the mythological structural approach to fiction. In fact, the Jarvis Method was partly inspired by this series as well as the readings of Joseph Campbell.
Curiously, the series is both weakened and strengthened by Story Type and Category changes. The first of this series (the film, Star Wars) is an excellent example of the Action-Category Locale-Adventure Story Type. If the story had ended with that film, we would have thought of the story merely as pure fun. Then, with The Empire Strikes Back, there is a switch to a more profound and subtle story, now a Theme-Category Character-Adventure Story Type. If this switch had continued into the last film, Return of the Jedi, we would have a masterpiece. Unfortunately, with this last film, the series reverts to the superficial, albeit exciting, nature of the first film, again an Action-Category Locale-Adventure story.
Yet despite the Story Type and Category confusion, on another level the Star Wars trilogy is worth the writer’s close attention, as it attempts and realizes mythological storytelling as few other American films have. (For more on this subject, see my discussion of mythological versus historical films in the November, 1996, issue of Story and Myth.