Selecting The Best Story Angle

The Angle of StoryI have a friend that found an incredible story that’s worthy of being developed into a screenplay. When he first told me about the true events, he talked about it from the perspective of the children. After chatting on the phone with the family, he shared the story again, but this time from the mindset of the mother. When he introduced me to one of the children, I heard the story from the father’s viewpoint. It was clear that the real life elements, or story beats, were significant enough to impact everyone in the family, giving us several choices in how to develop the motion picture.

After analyzing the information presented, I broke the elements down by each potential story angle to determine which one was best for the film. The categories I used included emotional beats, high stakes at risk, and entertainment value for the audience. The weighting of each category helped determine from what angle the story would be told.

EMOTIONAL BEATS

Film is an emotional medium that requires a story with passionate and poignant twists and turns. While beginning filmmakers think the story must first drive home a valuable message, it’s the emotional throughline that earns the right for the filmmaker to speak a message into the audience’s lives through the B-plotline. Those who try to craft the message within the action plotline soon find their story meanders or falls flat. The action plotline must take the audience on an emotional roller coster ride to properly make use of the medium. The film should therefore be from the perspective that drives the main character through a series of actions that heighten the emotional appeal and the story’s consequences.

Some of the films with clear emotional beats include: Les Misérables, Star Trek 2009, The Blind Side, The Darkest Hour, Schindler’s List, and The Wizard of Oz. These stories were well developed and crafted for the screen. The films were visual and hit every story beat that takes an audience on a journey of exploration. The stories argued both sides of a specific message in a way that enticed the audience to side with the filmmaker’s beliefs.

HIGH STAKES AT RISK

The character with the most to lose typically finds themselves in circumstances that amps up the volume of the emotional beats. This is critical to drive the story to its climatic conclusion. While stories typically have comic relief or temporary lulls in the action, so the audience can catch their breath, the story must be driven by choices that turn into physical and visual action. A “talking-head” plotline, where the main character spews forth nothing more than teachable moments, does not move the story forward or raise the stakes. The throughline must overcome the rule of diminishing returns, which is only possible by raising the stakes.

The rule of diminishing returns relates to the weakening of the audience’s buzz. The college student who gets his first car is excited to drive a secondhand clunker because its his. When after graduation he gets a normal car, he finds it difficult to get excited if he has to drive a clunker again. After a wonderful promotion and driving his upscale company car, the newly married driver struggles to find the excitement in driving the minivan on weekends. With every increased excitement, comes the rule of diminishing returns that makes it harder to generate the same buzz experienced in past events.

P.T. Barnum was a showman who used the rule of diminishing returns to his advantage. Everything he did had to increase its shock value to draw in an audience during the depressed era. Curiosity drove the people to purchase tickets over and over again as Barnum kept increasing the amazing acts within his show. Film is the same way. The audience must be taken on a journey that continues to amaze. The good news is that a director can use techniques to reset the audience’s expectations before every emotional increase so his story doesn’t get out of control.

ENTERTAINMENT VALUE

At today’s high ticket prices and costly cable packages, audience’s demand their monies worth. They want to be taken on a journey that they’ve never been on before or introduced to a character that they can learn about for the first time. To accomplish this goal all stereotypes must be dropped by the filmmaker. He also must find ways of allowing his unique character to directly impact the plot based on his or her choices. The audience must find the story fun in order to watch it a second time, or stirring enough for those who like to have a good cry. A great story with fantastic production values are always at the top of the box office list or award categories—due largely to the embedded entertainment value.

The Oscar nominated film, The Shape of Water, takes the audience on a alien-like journey in time during the Cold War. The audience is also introduced to a compassionate, mute woman. Her unique circumstances and personal drive grabs the audience’s attention, whether they agree or disagree with her life choices. While the film is a far left propaganda piece, it’s entertainment value drives curiosity among conservatives who may revisit their political views after watching the filmmakers perspective.

Developing a cinematic story with great emotional beats, high stakes at risk, and emotional value, earns the filmmaker the right to speak into the audience’s life. The result is consideration by the audience of the filmmaker’s argument, but only when the picture is properly developed using the above proven elements.

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Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers
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The Difference Between 3 and 4.5 Stars

Behind the Scenes with CJ PowersThere is a clear distinction that I’ve noticed between average and above average films. Most audiences pick up on the vibe, but can’t put their finger on the “why” behind the flat performance of an average film. Add to this the convoluted approach to look-alike pictures and it’s easy to understand the drop off in theater attendance.

The director is first to blame when a motion picture falls flat. While some might choose to direct a bad script, most directors that kill films do it instinctively. These directors are typically not immersed in the art form, which causes their natural gut instincts to be diametrically opposed to the requirements of telling a great story.

I remember a series of summer workshops that I conducted on writing and directing. In one arts conference I coached a class on how to write an award winning short film. We carefully crafted the story to include several key beats that made an emotional impact about the human condition. The final script was so amazing that I wanted to pony up a few dollars and make the film.

The script was then given to my director’s class. I taught on how to develop the story for shooting, and how to pick shots and blocking that would extenuate the beats. We even had detailed discussions on each character and the motivations that would drive their actions.

The individuals who signed up for the production workshop, which didn’t have a professional at the helm, shot a few of the scenes using a director from my earlier workshop. The next day everyone from the writing, directing and production workshops got together to watch the dailies. The excitement waned as we watched the flat clips. Disappointment eventually turned into an amazing conversation.

The screenplay had four very specific beats that were necessary to make the story clear and emotionally powerful. The director decided to experiment with the script and made artistic changes that unknowingly erased the story beats. He also gave up the helm, in the name of education, to other would-be directors and let them all have a shot at directing the scenes. None of them even knew what the story beats were.

The interpretations and experimentation were so far from the original script that it played flat and had no forward movement to the story. Nothing in the footage held the audiences attention or took them on a journey exploring the human condition. Even the dialog that the actors “improved” missed the focus of the story. Not one piece of footage looked like the award-worthy script.

Only directors immersed in the art form and focused on the story beats can bring a clear awareness of the human condition to the screen. Their gut instincts are well crafted to the medium and developmental process that turns great stories into great films. The sheer focus of a director on the story beats will transform and upgrade any film by an extra star or two.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

Developing A Cinematic Story

Developing A Cinematic StoryIndependent filmmakers are known to dive into projects without fully developing their story. Some come up with a cool scene idea and toss together a film to facilitate what’s in their mind’s eye for that 2-3 minute segment. The words that flow from their lips two years later is something like, “It didn’t quite turn out the way I pictured.”

The reason is elementary: Film is an argument, and the scene didn’t attempt to address anything worth arguing about.

The first place I’d check out, if given a new time machine, would be that large room where the Constitution of the United States was argued. I can imagine a group of passionate men fueled by their ideals on freedom of speech and religion, and the increasing weight of taxation without representation. It was a venue of the greatest arguments in the history of our country.

Great films cover both sides of an argument. The development process determines how the filmmaker will visualize the argument and lead the audience from a general understanding of the topic to his perspective. But most independent filmmakers can’t tell you what their film argues, which gives insights into why their film will fail at the box office.

A couple months ago, I watched an independent film that will fail during its release this summer because the story’s argument wasn’t explored with the audience, but rather was covered over by 22 unrelated messages. In fact, the argument was so underdeveloped that it took me the first 45 minutes of the film to determine who the main character was and his goal.

Here are a few guidelines that I’d like to suggest to new filmmakers for their consideration during the development phase of their motion picture:

  1. Determine what your film will argue.
  2. List all key points of the argument from every vantage point or perspective.
  3. Determine what view you’d like the audience to hold when leaving the theater.
  4. Select the strongest or most widely-held opposing argument for your antagonist.
  5. Create an 8-step flowchart that moves a person from an opposing viewpoint to your perspective, starting with their belief and ending with yours.
  6. Brainstorm a character that can best move the audience from the start box to the end box of the flowchart in a way that leads the audience to embrace his process.
  7. Based on the above, write a premise that can drive the action or movement of the film.

A simple way to develop a premise is to use an outline similar to the following:

[Title] is a [genre] about a [hero] who, after [big beat that happens to hero], wants to [hero’s desire] by [hero’s plan], which becomes increasingly difficult because of [obstacles/complications].

This quick formula will get your story launched in your mind’s eye and help you to immediately see if the story can be further developed. Here is a sample using The Fugitive that I tweaked for readability.

The Fugitive is a thriller about an innocent doctor who, after being sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife, escapes to find the real murderer, which becomes increasingly difficult with a determined Marshall hot on his trail.

Once you have your argument and premise, the next step is to determine how to weave the two ideas into a compelling story. The throughline will drive the audience’s interest, and the visual depiction of the argument will alter their perception of culture and their future life choices—that is, if the story is well crafted.

A well-designed argument that takes a person from a common view to your perspective is entertaining and can help audiences make culturally significant life changes. Since the motion picture is an argument, it’s easy to see why films have driven our culture for over a hundred years.

Our rich history of cinema suggests that filmmakers must learn how to properly develop their stories for the silver screen. To help encourage filmmakers move in that direction, I’m going to pull together some steps worth sharing in future blogs.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

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Elevator of Providence

ElevatorDoorPlacing the razor to my face, which was lathered with shaving cream, became difficult when the lights flickered. I had skipped shaving yesterday, so it was important to finish. After a few strokes, the lights went out and I faced the dilemma of going to work with a partially shaved face or hunting for a flashlight in the dark.

I banged my hand into the door as I reached for the doorknob. The handle was not where I had imagined. Once found, I opened the door to a window-lit bedroom and spotted my cell phone laying on the desk. After swiping up for the flashlight, I moved into the bathroom and positioned the light on the right side of my face. There was enough bounce light coming off of the glass shower door to illuminate my left side. Within a few minutes I was clean shaven and curious.

There was a rythmic thumping noise coming from outside my unit near the hallway. Faint voices bantered back and forth, so I figured they spoke on the topic of the day—the electrical outage. Choosing to take a very short shower, I jumped in and lathered up in record time, but I hesitated to rinse when I heard a plea for help. I stood motionless trying to hear the words being uttered.

My shower backs up to the elevator and I realized someone was trapped inside. I scrambled to dry off and get dressed with the understanding that taking time to help the woman would make me late for work. I chuckled as my mind flashed back to the end of work yesterday. In that moment I thought about providence.

Circumstances caused me to work an additional hour past my normal quitting time. One of the owners told me to come in later the next day to avoid overtime. So here I was staring providence in the face with an hour given me in advance to help calm the woman and her anxious dog. I was amazed and immediately focused on making sure the woman was okay.

She and her dog had been trapped in the pitch black box suspended around the third floor for 10-15 minutes. The woman’s voice trembled with fear as she responded to someone a floor lower shouting about the phone in the elevator. The backup battery had failed and the phone line was dead.

I looked for the elevator key, but there was not a breakable glass case that held the key. “I’m going down to the first floor to get the elevator key,” I said.

“Thank you,” she responded with a tone of relief in her voice. Her confidence level was boosted.

I moved swiftly down the hallway lit by a couple fading emergency lights and was thankful that the staircase was still lit. On the first floor I bumped into the building manager who providentially arrived seconds earlier for a planned meeting. “The fire department is on the way,” she said.

“I’d rather the woman trapped in the elevator not have to wait any longer,” I said. “Let’s grab the elevator key and I’ll head upstairs and speed her escape.”

The building manager moved quickly to the glass case and noticed it was cracked open. The key was gone. “I’m not surprised,” she said. “The new laws only allow police and firemen to open an elevator door in emergencies.”

“Today would be a good day for an exception, is there another key somewhere else?” I asked.

She took me into the elevator room where the equipment is stored. As we entered, she threw the light switch to the “on” position and nothing happened. Then she laughed.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “You did it out of habit.”

She nodded and scanned the room for a backup key, but couldn’t find one. Then the thought hit her. “There’s probably one in the Knox-Box,” she said. We headed toward the one hanging in the foyer. After struggling to get into it, she remembered the one at the backdoor.

I watched her struggle with it. “Don’t worry about it, the firemen are here,” I said when I noticed the reflection of red lights flashing on a pane of glass.

The building manager walked out to the Fire Chief car, but no one was there. I circled back to the front door and went outside to see if he was doing a quick inspection of the surroundings.

“There’s a woman trapped in the elevator on the third floor,” I said.

“Is the electricity out?” he asked.

“Yes.”

The Chief got on his radio and instructed his team of the situation. He entered the foyer and met with the building manager. They went to the Knox-Box at the front door and found no elevator key. She took him next to the one at the back door, which was also void of an elevator key.

“I have a universal key in my car,” he said. “I’ll get it.”

“Shouldn’t one of the smaller keys open the elevator box next to the elevator? Won’t there be an elevator key there?” asked the building manager.

“Yes, but it’ll be faster to grab my keys.”

Soon a fireman dressed in full gear carrying an axe entered the foyer with keys in hand.
“Oh, don’t bring that axe in here,” said the building manager. “We don’t want anything destroyed. There is a key.”

The fireman held up a metal loop of a dozen different elevator keys. “I’ve got the key right here. Where is the woman?”

“I think she’s stuck between the third and fourth floor,” said the building manager.

“She’s on the third floor,” I clarified. I’ve already talked to her and she’s expecting me to come back up with the key. I can take you there.”

The fireman signaled for me to lead the way. I was being followed by two male firefighters, a female firefighter, and the building manager. When we got to the elevator door the fireman started working his loop of keys, but couldn’t find one that seemed to engage the mechanism needed to open the door.

“Shouldn’t we get the key from the Knox-Box to open the elevator lock box and get the key we know works with this elevator?” asked the building manager.

“I have every known elevator key right here,” the fireman said as he lifted the loop of keys.

“Okay,” said the building manager with a huff.

The fireman worked a key, then another and another. Then he pulled the loop back and the keys slipped, forcing him to start the search over.

I thought about providence and wondered if it was about to show itself once again. Just then the lights in the hallway came on. The building power had been restored.

“Should I turn the elevator back on?” said the voice over the fireman’s radio.

“Yes, turn it on,” he responded.

The sound of power surging was heard. “The lights came on,” shouted the woman trapped in the elevator.”

I leaned toward the door and said, “Push the door open button.” The door opened and her shaking dog charged into the hallway. The woman followed with a broad smile on her face. Everyone was relieved.

Realizing her predicament the woman asked, “Is the elevator working now?”

“Yes,” answered the fireman.

“Well I need to take the dog downstairs then,” said the woman. She stepped back in the elevator, but her dog fought to stay out.

“It’s good to get back on the horse after a fall,” I said. “The dog will need to rebuild his confidence.”

The woman looked at me and nodded. Then she gave the dog a big yank and his little feet slid across the carpet and entered the elevator. She pushed the first floor button and the door closed. She was back on schedule to letting her dog outside.

I stood in awe of the team of people who gathered to help the woman. After watching everyone head toward the staircase, I turned toward the opposite staircase and passed by many congregating in the stairwell with questions and stories to share.

One man who followed me asked, “What happened?”

“Providence was able to save the woman before any of us could,” I said.

I opened the stairwell door and we were met by a lady with lots on her mind. “I just got off the phone with the power company,” said the lady. “They said there was an accident and they lost power to 155,000 buildings in the area. They also said the power will be on in about two hours.”

I smiled and quietly stepped away from the group. I glanced back and saw the man who had followed me step away from the group. He seemed to be in a daze. As I entered the garage I heard him mutter, “He knew something happened. I want that ability.”

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

New Negligent Parenting Laws

Old Enough for Bad Movies

Few states tell us how to raise our kids. Illinois is now one of those states that says, “any minor under the age of 14 years whose parent or other person responsible for the minor’s welfare leaves the minor without supervision for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety, or welfare of that minor” is being negligent.

The new law suggests that I would’ve needed a babysitter when I was 13 years old—a teenager. The funny thing, I was a babysitter for the little kids around the block at age 12. I was responsible, being raised by a police officer and teacher, and I knew how to keep the kids entertained. I even handled a faulty gas line fire both calmly and efficiently, making the parents thankful they hired me.

A few high school and college kids I knew were far less responsible and couldn’t manage an emergency if it happened. They allowed the kids under their supervision to wreak havoc, creating a huge mess for the parents to clean up after their return.

And what about the fact that our 13-year-olds are allowed to watch a single occurrence of natural frontal nudity and hear two F-words in a PG-13 movie, but they can’t stay home alone for a subjective unpublished time frame?

The law does allow you to leave your child for a “reasonable” amount of time, but if a neighbor makes a call suggesting negligence, the state can take the child into custody without a warrant. Once a court date is provided, the judge has 15 non-exhaustive factors to consider in determining the guilt of the parent. Unfortunately the courts do not provide a list of criteria to help the parent determine if his or her 13-year-old can be left alone for a short time.

I’m a firm believer that most parents know if their 13-year-old can be left alone and for how long. I’m also confident that the government has no idea if a young teen is capable of being left alone, regardless of the period of time in question. This perspective suggests that the new law was put in place as a tool to punish a very small percentage of people who are negligent when it comes to raising their kids.

The problem with a law aimed at so few, rather than being a law for the majority, is that it opens the door for someone wanting to abuse or hurt a healthy family. It only takes one phone call to engage the system and pull a kid from their home until the issue can be resolved in court.

Worse yet is the list of 15 non-exhaustive factors a judge can use in making his or her determination. This list is not available to the general public (at least not at the time I wrote this blog), which means parents don’t know the criteria that their parenting skills are being judged on.

And, what happens if the political landscape changes and a new list warns the judge about children living in what might be considered an overzealous “religious” home? Can the government eventually define healthy parenting as those who “protect” children “from” religion until they become adults? That’s the way it is in some countries.

Whenever laws are put in place to punish the few instead of protecting the many, we find more restrictions placed on our lives, which takes away another piece of our freedom. Historically, specific and objective laws were designed for the majority of the people and the few oddball cases were determined by the judge based on the intent revealed by the majority of the laws.

Abuse becomes too prevalent when laws become highly subjective and parents are being measured by a list that is not available for their review. Our society has become so focused on protecting the few that we’ve lost sight of how we protect the majority.

I hope we protect all children who face abuse, but we do it without jeopardizing the freedom of the majority of our children. There has to be a better way. Shouldn’t lawmakers look for it?

Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers

I’m Not Lost!

Scarf1I walked downtown this morning to make a bank deposit, return a book to the library, and send a Christmas package to a dear friend. The walk was lovely with old lampposts decorated in garland and red ribbons. But something was a bit different on the next lamppost I approached.

A scarf was wrapped around it with a note attached that read: “I’m not lost! If you find yourself in the cold, take this to keep yourself warm!”

I witnessed Christmas in action. The brand new, warm scarf being made available for someone in need was a great demonstration of unconditional love. The recipient’s finances or lack thereof wouldn’t be judged, nor would the gift leverage a lesson to illuminate their poor choices or lifestyle. The gift was given out of grace alone with no strings attached.

The kind donor deserved to be blessed for such an act of kindness, but the generous gift was anonymous. Joy filled my soul as I thought how fun it would be to determine what I could provide. A spark of imagination flooded my thoughts as I walked further down the street.

Scarf2Then I spotted another scarf, and another. Glancing across the street I noticed others scattered among various lampposts. The Christmas cheer was plentiful and I wondered how long it would be until those in need received comfort and warmth. I turned back to my path and continued toward the library.

A man huddled in the small alley between buildings acknowledged me. He was wearing old, dirty clothes that were dark blue and charcoal in color. His hat looked well worn and grungy, but the bright yellow and green scarf wrapped around his neck was brand new. He had watched me take pictures of the scarfs around the lampposts and smiled as he nodded with his hand patting the new scarf.

Next to the library sat another homeless man. His dark brown clothes were as dirty as one might expect, with the exception of the bright red scarf around his neck. I smiled at him and wished him a Merry Christmas. He returned the greeting as he adjusted his scarf to reveal his huge smile.

I had seen Christmas this morning and I felt compelled to share the experience. While you might not have homeless people in your town, I’m sure there is someone in need this winter that would love to smile from a demonstration of unconditional love. Maybe an elderly woman needs an errand done, or a sick child needs a new stuffed animal for play.

The answers are as numerous as the needs that rise out of the blue. Taking action to demonstrate love not only helps the recipient, but also encourages others to act in a similar manner. This is the season of compassion and only you can do your part in turning someone’s holiday sorrows into a beaming smile.

Let me know what you decide to do to help others this season. I’d love to hear that there are lots of people who care enough to participate in being someone’s Christmas wish.

If I’ve spoken into your life, would you…

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Copyright 2017 by CJ Powers

A Chance Meeting: A Story to Warm the Heart

pexels-photo-688012The cold drove me down the street faster than normal with the hopes of stepping into the next shop for warmth. Handing out promotional rack cards to every business in town was difficult due to the whipping wind. While I loved the freshness of the Chicago breeze during other seasons, winter typically saw the wind chill drop below zero, which was once again the case.

I stepped into a beauty parlor and my eyes locked onto a gorgeous woman who welcomed me to the shop. Her green eyes and reddish hair suggested an Irish heritage, but it was her Celtic Claddagh ring that convinced me of her family line and availability. The ring was on her right hand with the heart facing outward to signal that her heart was open to the right person.

The Irish side of me lit up and I engaged in an enthusiastic conversation. She was funny and generous with sincere compliments, but our time was cut short when her boss called her into the backroom. The moment was awkward at best. I headed to the door hoping to hear her voice one last time. The bell overhead clanged as I opened the door and faced the frigid air.

“I hope you come again!” the woman called out with a cheerful voice. I turned and gave her a smile, then twisted into the wind as I closed the door behind me. My face numbed from the below zero wind chill as my mind raced with warm thoughts from our chance visit. It was a good day.

Sitting by the fireplace in the early evening, I took a sip from my mug of soup and collected my thoughts. I penned a thank you note to the woman that had warmed my soul during the blizzard. I chose my words carefully knowing that she would most likely read the note several times over. Not because I wrote well, but because we seldom receive handwritten correspondence.

The words flowed directly from my heart with a sense of passion that would catch the attention of any healthy woman. Every syllable added to the rhythm in a fashion that, when read out loud, might sound musical to the discerning ear. The melodious words affirmed her hospitality earlier in the day and encouraged her to shine for others entering the shop for days to come.

As I signed the parchment, I reread the inspirational paragraphs to make sure when scrutinized the note reflected nothing more than a platonic thank you. Albeit encouraging beyond what most would attempt in a day of harassment allegations. But I made sure that not a single word suggested anything beyond a wholesome acquaintance.

That’s not to say a woman might not misconstrue certain words to be hints of a future she might long for, or inflate other words to the point where she could dream of a future that I would never accept. But within context and the definition of each word, she should only understand how well she comes across to others and the value she holds within her heart.

As for my heart, it was not ready to consider returning to the salon. My heart was still pounding for a woman from my past that I never had a chance to date. She was a woman of high moral character, though her past suggested a few dusty roads had been traveled in her younger years.

But I enjoyed the refreshing and warming company in those few moments while my toes and fingers warmed. And hopefully, the woman will always appreciate the stranger who entered her life long enough to encourage her with sincere compliments of her hospitality.

The Christmas season seems to have little moments of surprise that gives us that extra push through our hardships in life. It’s a time when all men consider good will to those they meet. And hopefully, it’s a time when simple words of affirmation can be magnified to boost a person’s morale for those who don’t have family around to celebrate.

© 2017 by CJ Powers