Friday, January 19, 2007

More Bones for your First Draft

Okay, so the last time we talked here, we discussed the basics of my "Rule of Threes" working method when it comes to outlining a DVDP script. I would refresh your memory a bit before tackling this section.

I'll wait...

So here's an example of an outline I've done for THE SKULL , a project born out of my love for film noir, Mexican Lucha Libre and cliffhanger serials. It's a simple revenge story at its heart, so with that in mind here is the outline I wrote for my first draft:


Act One:

1. Who am I?

When a man is burned alive by a gang of masked men, he is somehow resurrected with no memory of who he was and no face except for a gleaming white skull.

2. Make them Pay.

When the man runs into the gangsters who now control the whole of downtown, he trains himself to destroy their organization.

3. The Skull Strikes!

When he destroys one of the gang’s nightclubs, The Skull not only draws the attention of the gang’s leader, El Diablo, but the police who think he killed a cop.

Act Two:

4. Complications Ensue

When The Skull confronts the hard-boiled lady detective chasing him, he learns that he was the cop he is accused of murdering, and she is his former partner and lover who also wants to take down El Diablo’s and his gang for what they‘ve done.

5. More than Meets the Eye

When The Skull confronts El Diablo both men learn that (xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx), forcing El Diablo to up his timetable to take over the city‘s underworld with his designer drug, Hellfire.

6. Turnabout is Fair Play

After destroying many of El Diablo’s Hellfire operations, The Skull learns his former partner is threatened, and he races to the rescue only to find (xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx)

Act Three:

7. Taken to El Diablo’s headquarters.

Captured, The Skull pieces together that he was once El Diablo’s prisoner where they experimented on him refining El Diablo’s Hellfire, which is how he survived.

8. Game of Death.

The Skull must fight his way past El Diablo’s enhanced henchmen to the top of the headquarters in order to finally learn the question that has been fueling his revenge - why did they kill him?

9. Ending the Masquerade.

When The Skull defeats El Diablo, he learns that (xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx)

So here’s how the basic spine of my story looks - pretty crude huh? I didn't even have a name for my main hero at that point. I’ve even neglected to mention one of the characters who will play a big part in the story. Well, it’s supposed to be crude because all of the subtlety and nuance you save for the first draft.

Now that you have this spine in place and you can simply follow the progression of your hero's story with your scenes. What I do next is split the outline onto three pages, an act per page, and write down all of the scenes within each arc. For example:

1. Who am I?

When a man is burned alive by a gang of masked men, he is somehow resurrected with no memory of who he was and no face except for a gleaming white skull.

- Opening Scene: Junkyard. Hero’s murder, introduce villain & henchmen.
- Int. Cathedral: Hero survives- How? Introduce “Casey.” “Who am I?”
- Ext. Streets - background. Introduce world we’re in.
- Our hero sees gang, but can do nothing as they take down local businesses and the cops.

I try and keep the scene descriptions simple, on the page as sparse notes sending me in the right direction toward the moment I type “The End.” I find if I get too detailed at this point in the outline I can get bogged down in that detail instead of focusing on the structure of the story. I want to leave the creative stuff for the first draft. I also find that motifs and character start to come out in the outline phase - stuff I can use when writing the first draft. For example:

Every scene relates back to the main chapter title in some way, shape or form. If it doesn’t relate, it really sticks out like a sore thumb, and I get rid of it. I also like to dive in rather quickly and immerse the reader into the world of The Skull - I mean how often does a story start where the hero is killed by the villain right off?

Scenes, and the chapter titles also relate back to the main character. I titled the opening “Who Am I?” because there’s something not quite right with our hero - a) he has no face and b) he can’t remember who he is or why the masked gang killed him in the first place. His quest is to answer this question, and the only way he’s going to be able to do that is by taking down El Diablo and his gang. He learns that lesson when he sees the gang rule “downtown”, taking over all of the local hangouts and business as they push the Hellfire. The only thing they’re all afraid of is another “masked” gangster like themselves, so he becomes one - albeit without the mask.

You see how the first arc blends into the second arc? Our hero goes from being clueless and then having to learn all about this dark new world he’s in, to realizing that the guys who did this to him have the answers he seeks. He just has to destroy a super criminal empire to get it. All in the first ten pages.

And yes, the whole affair has the subtlety of a sledge hammer against a kneecap, but that’s the kind of story this is, and when you learn how to use the “rule of threes” you can learn how to be more subtle. (Start simple, remember?)

What's fun is when you see these motifs emerge from the outline and you refine them while writing the first draft. Just remember that no matter how your outline is structured if you mention it in the first act - it has to pay off by the third. Again, in the case of The Skull - I ask, “Who am I?” - a character driven question which I answer it at the end of the script…

with plenty of fisticuffs and frights along the way.


Eleanor said...

I guess I need to just write, and write, and write.

I'm trying to suss how much content is rquired in the second act...and how to avoid it being overly obvious and boring.

First act and last act I can cope with - It's "what can I get away with?" for the middle chunk that's the issue.

Any tips?

Cunningham said...

The only things required in the 2nd act are those things which bridge the story from point A to point Z.

In a DVDP script - it's 90 minutes, and each act is of equal length (30 pages).

My advice would be to keep it as simple as possible - write the first draft - then re-outline the whole thing based on what you learned writing that draft.

And I'm not quite sure what you mean by "get away with?"

Eleanor said...

I really shouldn't post when I've been drinking... *sigh*

Okay: I've not worked from a structure outline before - I used to just have at it, and the results are always too long and convoluted -- and require either a substantial, or a page 1, rewrite as a direct result.

So instead of blurting everything out, and then having an unholy mess to deal with, I thought I'd try your 3 act map.

In effect I've reversed my writing process: start simple and get a bit more complicated, as opposed to my usual start very complicated and discover there's too much story for the time allowed.

The story I'm working on is a creature feature.
I've worked out my ending, and my beginning.
The 2nd act where everyone is normally running around and getting killed/eaten - this is extremely well trodden ground. Finding a way to tell that part of the story in a satisfying way is what's bugging me.
I don't want to end up with a film where everyone knows exactly what to expect.
I guess, discovering the rules for the monster is what makes films like Tremors and Alien particularly gripping for the audience. Whereas films like Bats or Eight Legged Freaks don't really bother with that, and I personally find them less enthralling as a result. They're fun, but they don't have the same impact.
I may have just answered my 2nd act query in there somewhere. *rolls eyes*
(Then again, thinking in terms of budget restrictions - the above films are probably really bad examples.)


Are there any films you can recommend that twist/break horror convention rules - as examples of either: what can be gotten away with, or what not to do?

Cunningham said...

Yes, you did answer it- with your word "discovery."

But you're not only discovering things about your monster, you're discovering things about your characters and how they deal with said creature.

In THE SOUND I had people start to go crazy because they couldn't make a sound or the "creature" they accidentally unleashed would get them and use the sound energy against them. Having to stay silent so long makes you go a bit batty and your real personality starts to come out - your fears, your hopes, your regrets, your weaknesses - which of course, makes you "human."

Hope that helps.

Eleanor said...

Thanks Bill! :)

Eleanor said...

Is THE SOUND available for download anywhere? I'd like to read it, if possible.

Anonymous said...

I like the story. Touch of Robocop?

Cunningham said...

A touch of ROBOCOP, a dash of SIN CITY and a heap of Mexican Lucha Libre and Dia de Las Muertos (sp?) imagery.