Monday 23 July 2012

Book review: The Short Screenplay

Dan Gurskis is the dean of the College of the Arts at Montclair State University, New Jersey. He was previously professor and chair of the Department of Film, Brooklyn College, of the City University of New York, where he had overseen the creation of a graduate school of cinema, with the largest film and television production facility outside of Los Angeles. 
    In addition to his academic experience, Gurskis has held creative and management positions in film, television, theatre, and advertising, and he has performed pro bono work in arts management.

He also wrote a book called The Short Screenplay: Your Short Film from Concept to Production. It's a book of information, rather than inspiration. If you like the facts laid out in crisp logical order, with lots of lists, sample short film scripts, an index, and every buzz word carefully explained and illustrated, this book will suit you. If you're starting out in film and need to learn the language, this is a great place to begin. It was written by a teacher, for students, and that shows from page one. There's nothing new or revolutionary here, just lots of simple, practical advice for anyone looking to make their first short film.

What follows is a bunch of sample quotes from the book.
  • There are four main categories of short films:
    • Short-short (2-4 minutes in length)
    • Conventional short (7-12 minutes in length)
    • Medium short (20-25 minutes in length)
    • Long short (30 minutes or longer)
    Each is structurally different from the others.
  • In conceptualizing your screenplay, you should also be careful to avoid certain things:
    • The extensive use of special or visual effects
    • Large casts
    • Multiple subplots
    • Story resolution through death (either murder or suicide)
    • Weapons
    • Serial killers
    • Parodies and mockumentaries
    • Dreams and fantasies
    • Characters who are obviously walking contradictions.
  • An audience makes its connection with a film primarily through identification with an empathetic character.
  • An effective short screenplay is almost always character-centered.
  • A character is defined by the choices made during the course of the screenplay's action. A choice involves a decision. But the decision is in the doing, not in the consideration of what should be done. In other words, a choice is active and external. Something happenssomething that the audience can see.
  • A screenwriter must decide how much information the audience should know relative to the characters on-screen.
    • When the audience knows less than the characters, there's natural curiosity about the outcome of events on-screen. This storytelling strategy is called mystery.
    • When the audience shares the same information as the characters, there's both concern for the characters and curiosity about the outcome. This strategy is called suspense.
    • When the audience knows more than the characters, there's only concern for the characters because the outcome is already known. This strategy is called dramatic irony.
  • Film dialogue has six goals:
    • Move the plot forward
    • Reveal character
    • Provide information about the story
    • Establish tone
    • Convey theme
    • Add to the backdrop of the story.
  • In a speech, a line, or an exchange, the most important point comes at the end, the second-most important point comes at the beginning, and everything else, which can vary in importance, lies in the middle.
  • A competent actor can say more with his face in a close-up than a superb screenwriter can say in pages of dialogue.
  • Characters, plot, setting, and theme each present you with a way to generate ideas for a screenplay.
  • A premise is the dramatic situation from which the conflict arises and the action unfolds.
  • A concept is the overall idea for a story (not a plot) expressed in one sentence, consisting of a protagonist, that character's super-objective, and the obstacle that stands in the way of attaining that objective.
  • A synopsis is a concise prose version of a story (not a plot) told in three to five paragraphs.
  • A step outline—also known as a beat sheet—is a scene-by-scene outline of the major beats that will make up the action in a screenplay.
  • A scene outline is a more detailed scene-by-scene description of the screenplay, including most, if not all, of the minor beats that will make up the action in the screenplay.
  • A sequence outline is a list of the sequences that will make up the action in the screenplay.
  • Traditionally, a treatment has been a 20-50-page prose version of the story for a screenplay. Over the years, this has evolved, and today the term is often used to describe any prose version of the story for a screenplay, regardless of its length. 
  • At the very least, you should create a concept, a synopsis, and a step outline before beginning your first draft.    

1 comment:

Kathy said...

This sounds very practical and useful. You can't argue with a guy who's done it and run it!