Monday, December 27, 2010

While we were dining on Christmas night, one of my friends and students from the Academy - ScreenWrite.In ignited a discussion on dialogues of old Hindi films which had created great impact on the audiences of those times, which he doubted exist in the same order nowadays. I found it an interesting query, at the same time I opined I loved the dialogues in Taare Zameen  Par (2007)  or very recently Aakrosh (2010) impressive for that matter.

The discussion then moved on to the scene (I’m editing those portions of the discussion of Indian regional language films for the sake of the majority to relate to the movies,) in Jerry McGuire when Tom Cruise dashes into the room to claim his estranged wife. When he spots her in a group of unfamiliar women, his eyes are moist and his face is awash with a million feelings. He locks eyes with her and pours his heart out in anguish. She tearfully shushes him to let him know that all is forgiven and that she is back. That moment would have been complete and poignant even if it had ended with Tom’s soulful soliloquy, but the dialogue, ‘You had me at hello’ melted the last icicle in a cynical heart.

In Apollo 13 when Tom Hanks and his team are getting trained in the spacecraft could you guess as to how that scene would turn out with none of them saying a word? For sure, there would have been much labored gesticulating involved.

That’s why we need dialogue – to sometimes convey the essence in situations where no words are necessary, and to sometimes convey information in situations when only words will do.

Now, movie dialogues, as with real life speeches, broadly elicit 2 reactions: ‘Well said!’ or ‘Who talks like that?’ To predominantly write dialogues that fall in the first category, there are a few thumb rules that one can follow.

One of the most important things to remember is that a dialogue is something that a character gives birth to. It is the character, complete with his strengths, his weaknesses, his past, his experiences, and most importantly, his reasons to tell a bit of his story that mouths the dialogue. In other words, what a guy says can’t be very different from who he really is.

Tom Hanks, as an articulate, wronged lawyer sitting across Denzel Washington explains his HIV predicament: ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.’ No, it couldn’t have worked there – but an earnest and simple Tom Hanks eager to share his wisdom with a willing stranger – yes, there the dialogue worked.

The next important thing is to remember why your character has to speak in the first place. Does the dialogue establish character? (A guy with 20” biceps mumbling ‘Tough men don’t cry.’ Or Michael Douglas in Wall Street saying: ‘Greed is good.’)

Or does it move the story further? (‘But Ma left for the hospital ages back! You can probably catch her at the platform),

Or does it connect two divergent pieces of information related in the story?
When the characters are real and the situations reasonable, simple dialogues become quote worthy. Take the tough Arnold Schwarzenegger saying ‘I’ll be back’ (most of Rajnikant movies have similar dialogue characteristic) or a somewhat curious lady in ‘When Harry met Sally’ making up her mind for dessert after witnessing Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm, “I’ll have whatever she’s having.’

They didn’t say anything exceptional, and they didn’t even say it exceptionally but the character and the context makes the dialogue worth quoting. The dialogues worked because they were natural, they were probable, and they were dialogues that one can believe them of saying.

And finally, I’d suggest we write dialogues keeping in mind that some scenes really work without them. As Air Supply - the Australian duo sang it: ‘You say it best when you say nothing at all.’


Saturday, December 18, 2010


Two days back I had to answer a query by one of my prospective students, who wanted to join for a creative writing program I offer now at the Academy - ScreenWrite.In. Her query was: How’s creative writing different from Screenwriting. I reckon many have this confusion, and that’s why I told Revathy I’ll write a blog about this.

Creative writing is anything where the purpose is to express thoughts, feelings and emotions rather than to simply convey information.

Creative writing is considered to be any writing, fiction, poetry, or non-fiction that goes outside the bounds of normal professional, journalistic, academic, and technical forms of literature. Works which fall into this category include novels, epics, short stories, and poems. Writing for the screen and stage - screenwriting and playwriting respectively, typically have their own programs of study, but fit under the creative writing category as well.

'Creative writing is writing that expresses the writer’s thoughts and feelings in an imaginative, often unique, and poetic way.' (Sil.org – What is Creative Writing?)

'Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be out-law heroes of some under-culture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.' (Don DeLillo)

Creative writing can technically be considered any writing of original composition. In this sense creative writing is a more contemporary and process-oriented name for what has been traditionally called literature, including the variety of its genres. The practice of "professional writing" is not excluded from creative writing — one can be doing both in the same action.

Forms of creative writing:

Collaborative writing
Creative non-fiction (Personal & Journalistic Essays)
Flash fiction
Playwriting/Dramatic writing
Short story
Stream of consciousness (narrative mode)

To differentiate or bullet-point screenwriting from creative writing I’d say screenplay is a visual and an auditory medium. It cannot convey the inner thoughts of the protagonists’ minds as within novels, unless there is a narrative in the form of a voice-over, as in Goodfellas and Field of Dreams. However, such a tactic must be used with care, as it can be often be overused and may not be the best way of conveying inner thoughts.

There must be no literary prose within the screenplay. With just about a hundred and twenty minutes or so of storytelling, there is very little scope to describe in depth the protagonists’ background and biographical details.

On an average, a novel can be anything from 60,000 to 500,000 words long, and depending upon the font used, the size of the book will differ vastly too. The screenplay has strict guidelines, demanding a particular font (courier or pica with a font size of 12), with the ideal length of about 90 to 120 pages long, one page equalizing one minute of screen time.

As a screenplay is a blueprint for a film, and film being in present tense, it becomes a written and unbreakable rule that you can't write the text in past or future tense. Flashbacks and Flashforwards or any innovative non-linear structures are all inside the storytelling; but they are shown on the screen in present motion as is always the case.

So Screenplays are more ‘formatic’ for purposes of time and visual orientation than Prose or Poetry. Creative writing is an “art piece” of your mind wherein you can freely express your ideas, emotions and ability to attract or magnetize readers. Screenplays , on the other hand, attract readers but of a special category viz. the script-reader or the director to make the play to a visual reality.

To wind this up I’ll ‘retweet’ here: Nothing else has ever given me such ineffable joy or left me in profound despair, still I can't imagine a time I cannot write a screenplay.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Yesterday when I was teaching the different emotions that screenwriters handle so very often, one of the aspirants asked me a pertinent query: How’s mystery different from suspense?

This is a question asked by many students of screenwriting at my studio – Screenwrite.In. The answer is very similar to a Court's definition (and I can’t remember which Court) of pornography, "I can't define suspense, but I know it when I see it." Though we all know the difference when we see mystery and suspense severally, we find it sometimes, ineffable to detail the difference.

Wishing to have a better sharing for this mystery and suspense definition I referred the guiding interpretations of the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Contrary to popular belief, Hitchcock explained, suspense bears no relationship to fear. Instead, it is the state of waiting for something to happen.

Crucial to the Hitchcock-ian thriller is the difference between suspense and surprise. To put it simply, (I have written this before in one of my previous blogs: ABOUT 'SUSPENSE' IN MOVIES) the director said that if you have a scene where two characters are conversing in a cafe, and a bomb suddenly goes off under the table, the audience experiences surprise. On the other hand, if the audience sees the saboteur place the bomb, is told that it will go off at one o'clock, and can see a clock in the scene, the mundane conversation between two cafe patrons now becomes one of intense suspense, as the audience holds its collective breath waiting for the explosion. Fifteen minutes of suspense, as opposed to fifteen seconds of surprise. It was therefore necessary, to Alfred Hitchcock, that the audience be as fully informed as possible.

Based on this principle, the suspense thriller has been loosely defined as a story in which the audience is waiting for something significant to happen. The protagonist's job is to prevent the speeding bus from exploding, or the aliens from eating the crew. The reader experiences a vicarious thrill by identifying with the hero and the danger he faces, becoming a participant in the chase.

A mystery, on the other hand, is a chain of revelation, with action more mental than physical. A significant event, usually a murder, has just occurred, and the protagonist's job is to discover who committed the crime, and why. The dilemma created for the writer of traditional mysteries is the fact that the villain and the details of the crime must remain unidentified, breaking Hitchcock's rule of keeping the audience informed.

While writing a mystery the screenwriter quickly learns that it is far harder to generate suspense when the story revolves around something that has already happened, as opposed to a life-threatening event that is going to happen in the future.

For this reason, most of the mystery-screenplays contain elements of suspense, where the protagonist or another character's life is in danger as long as the villain remains at large. At the same time to the screenwriter’s utmost alarm he/she loses the most significant source of conflict: the protagonist and her major foe cannot face off in conflict until the final scene. A threat from an unknown source is never as superb as the danger of a known and powerful villain.

So, if it's that simple, why don't we all give up writing ‘whodunits’, and turn our attention to screenplays for the next Die Hard or Ghajini (Hindi 2008) sequel? The answer is simple. While the traditional mystery may lack something in shock value and sensational thrill, it has other merits.

A successful mystery is compelling drama because it explores the uncharted territory of the mind. Few mysteries today rely solely on a puzzle. The contemporary whodunit has become a ‘whydunit’. For the same reason that we read true crime stories, we read mysteries to find out why a sane person would be pushed to commit the ultimate crime, or how an insane murderer could so brilliantly cover his tracks. The reader gets involved because the mystery is such a perfect medium for revealing character.

All great literary writers have understood the connection between plot and character. Characters are defined by what they do. How characters act is controlled by who they are. Henry James wrote, "What is character by the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?"

The tension is created in a traditional mystery, as in any novel, by the unresolved conflicts between the characters. Conflict is created by placing interesting and well-rounded characters, which the reader can identify with, into an extraordinary and unfamiliar situation.

The sudden death and subsequent homicide investigation of a close relative or colleague is an emotional cauldron that is nevertheless plausible and understandable to the reader. Thus, the reader is hooked not by shocking thrill seeking, but by an intense need to know what will happen to these characters that have become like friends.

A good mystery satisfies our need to understand the human condition; but a suspense comparably is momentous.

ScreenWrite.In – New Logo and Website

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dear friends,

I’m so happy to tell you Screenwrite has come up with a new website and a new Logo - the Logo for the future, from now on. The website too is revamped with more visit-friendly, informative features.

There’s something I’ve added as Applied Programs in the Academy - ScreenWrite.In. Those are Short Term programs for: Sitcom/Serial writing for TV, Writing for Animation films, Creative writing, Copy writing, Blog writing, Play writing and Story Boarding apart from Screenwriting.

The intention is to bring about more and more writers with organized writing outlook, with the knowledge of systematized tools of writing in each of these writing segments. And my dream is more aspirants to get actualized, attending these programs.

Please visit www.screenwrite.in and popularize the website as a friendly gesture.