How To Write High-Impact Screenplays For Video Games and Film – Part 3 – The Log Line: Laying The Cornerstone

“A screenplay is a story told with pictures in dialogue and description and placed within the context of dramatic structure” – Syd Field

So what have you decided to write about? By that I don’t mean the genre, I mean what is the main subject of your story. Well regardless of what you’ve chosen, my advice to you is either write what you know or do your homework.

For example, Anaksha Dark Angel was a crime-noir thriller based on the US West coast. The problem is, I don’t live on the West coast. I don’t even live in the US, I live in the UK. That’ s a major disadvantage if I am going to write a story based over 5000 miles away from home. In order to make it sound even remotely realistic, I had to do a lot of work researching the legal system in CA and police procedures, despite adding my own fictional twists. The environment had to look and feel believable and I had to tread very carefully when it came to small details. Even a minor UK/US difference such as driving on the left side of the road, or a 3-pin electrical socket in the background would have ruined it. It was also helpful knowing people who live in CA who I can fire questions at if I need to find anything out. My workload was more than it should have been, but in the end I did my homework as best as I could and I’m happy with it. Granted there may be a one or two American/British spelling differences which slipped by me but despite that I think I did OK.

So the rule is: Either write what you’re most familiar with, or do lots of research.

Alright people, with that out of the way this is the part you’ve all been waiting for. This is where you actually get to start doing some work. So fire up a text editor or grab a notepad and pen because you’re going to lay the all-important cornerstone to your foundation. This is the phase screenwriters call…

The Log Line

Open any TV guide and you’ll see how each film has a few short sentences describing the basic outline of the movie. Go to any cinema and pick up a copy of their current film listings and you’ll see the same description next to each film. It’s a very short paragraph describing the basic premise of the film, without giving away the ending or any secrets of course. These short descriptions have one purpose – to excite you enough to hand over your money to watch the movie, without which there would be no film industry. But what a lot of people don’t know, is that these short descriptions are actually the humble beginnings of each film. Before you create a basic plot structure, you need to create what is called a log line. This is just a few sentences describing what the film is about and needs to sound exciting enough so that if anyone read it in a TV guide or the even the back of a game box you’d be dying to see/play it.

Let me give you a few examples (which I’m writing up in my own words by the way).

“When faced with financial bankruptcy and unemployment, a group of reject scientists decide to set up their own ghost hunting business right in the middle of downtown Manhattan.”

Can you guess what film that is? Of course, it’s Ghostbusters. Look at the way the line is written. The reader can immediately visualise the film in their mind and that’s the key. Despite not having seen it, they just know it’s going to be funny from the opposites in description alone. The opposites being “ghost hunting” and “downtown Manhattan“. Yes it sounds crazy, I know… but this kind of irony works beautifully! I mean, you can just smell the conflict in the movie.

If the reader has no knowledge of this film (ie: they’ve not read any reviews, seen any trailers or heard anything from their friends) then all kinds of questions will come up in the reader’s mind. Are the scientists serious or are they con-artists? Will they succeed? Are there really ghosts in Manhattan? From this description, the reader will make a decision to either watch the film or give it a miss. If you’ve created enough of a hook, then you’re onto a winner.

In Hollywood jargon there’s something known as a high-concept. This is a fresh and totally original idea which which agents and studios are always on the look out for. In my opinion, Ghostbusters is an excellent example of a high-concept idea.

Here’s a few more log lines for you. Some of them I’ve written myself, and some of them have been taken from IMDB. See if you can work out what films they are. (By the way, it doesn’t matter whether these films are good or bad, the purpose of this is to get you thinking about your own log lines)

“A young man is accidentally sent back in time where he meets his parents. However, when his mother ends up with a serious crush on him, he must now do everything to make sure his parents meet and fall in love before he disappears out of existence.”

“A vengeful, hate-riddled vampire hunter is forced to co-operate with his sworn enemies in order to hunt down and destroy a new threat looming over the city.”

A drunken, hateful, out-of-work detective who is convinced a toon killed his brother, must now investigate and prove the innocence of the most annoying and most wanted toon in the city who’s been accused of murder.

“A successful, lonely businessman who hires a hooker as a companion for a series of social events, ultimately ends up falling in love with her.”

“When a desperate movie producer fails to get a major star for his bargain basement film, he decides to shoot the film secretly around him. – (log line taken from IMDB)

“When wealthy industrialist Tony Stark is forced to build an armored suit after a life-threatening incident, he ultimately decides to use its technology to fight against evil. – (log line taken from IMDB)

Did you get the opposites in the log lines? Did you work out which films they are? If not, here they are in order. Back To The Future, Blade 2, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Pretty Woman, Bowfinger, Ironman.

Did you notice how the log line for Back To The Future has an extra punch added to it? The main protagonist must make sure his parents fall in love before he disappears out of existence. There’s a sense of urgency there, or a time limit. These kind of ticking timebomb plot structures work really well.

Here’s the log line I have for the Anaksha movie screenplay which I’m writing, which is simply titled Anaksha.

“A terrified little girl who flees her East Indian homeland to escape the criminal underworld, inadvertently ends up on the shores of America’s most dangerous city. But when a series of unfortunate events leads to the murder of her best and only friend, she decides to take the law into her own hands and ultimately rises to become the city’s most feared vigilante.”

A scared little girl? Escaping from crime and terror? America’s most dangerous city? There’s a lot of opposites and conflict right there and it’s very easy to visualise what the film is going to be like. Not only does it give you the basic understanding of her unfortunate circumstances, it practially sums up everything Anaksha stands for. It only tells you what I want you to know, and does so without giving away the entire story or any secret twists. The log line is a little rough around the edges but I’ll polish it up before release. Right now its main purpose is to guide me towards crafting the correct plot structure (explained in the next chapter).

Now I could have written it like this and it would have been a lot shorter.

“An illegal immigrant fights crime at night.”

What’s wrong with that log line? Well it doesn’t sound like a serious crime-noir story, does it? It sounds more like a comedy. There’s no sense of danger or anything. The only images this line conjures up in my head is of some comical Mexican guy with a huge moustache running around at night in a cape! Now that may sound interesting and some may even consider it a high-concept idea, but it’s not the effect I wanted (although maybe some day if I ever write a silly comedy I might use that theme! :) ). So the lesson here is to craft your sentences carefully and always have a thesaurus handy incase you need it.

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to give you the log line for Anaksha Dark Angel. The problem is, I can’t. *sheepish look* I never wrote one because at the time of writing it (mid 2008) I was still mastering this craft and was just getting round to understanding the importance of a log line. I dove straight into the plot structure and that critical mistake cost me dearly! I spent twice as long on the script as I should have done, simply because I didn’t get the foundations right. I ended up restructuring the main story twice and doing seven drafts before I was done. I learnt my lesson the hard way.

Now on the other hand, my new game, “Grand Larceny: Blackmail” which is currently in development does have a log line and let me tell you it’s made everything so much easier for me. The whole process feels so different and everything seems to happen so much quicker once you lay this critical cornerstone correctly. Here’s the log line. See what y0u think of it.

“On the verge of being promoted to detective after preventing a major jewel heist, an all-American hero cop is compelled into committing a minor, petty crime to save his wife’s one and only chance of college enrolment. But when an ex-con has video evidence of his deeds, he is blackmailed into committing a series of major heists all over the city, which he must now painfully endure to prevent losing his career, his spouse and his reputation.”

Now this isn’t the whole story, it’s just the log line. It only tells you the basic premise of the story and doesn’t give away any plot twists or endings.

So just to recap. Write your log line as a few, short sentences and try to make it sound exciting by adding the irony and conflict and if possible a sense of urgency. The log line will keep your plot structure on course. Remember, this isn’t just your starting point. If you’re writing a spec script to sell to a literary agent then it’s also your main selling point. So make it good. :)

A great way to test a log line would be to show it off to your family, friends and co-workers. Read out a whole bunch of different log lines and ask them which idea excites them the most. Most people will be happy to give you their honest opinion. Don’t worry about people stealing your idea. This is an unprofessional attitude to have and is highly unlikely to happen. You’re only telling them the log line, you’re not giving away the whole story.

That’s all for now. Til next time.

All content is © copyright Arif Majothi, 2012 and is exclusive to the ArifGames.com blog (all log lines are copyrighted to the relevent intellectual property owners). You are not permitted to reproduce or republish any part of this content. Please respect my right to do my own thing with my own rules. Report all content leeches and thieves to arifgames.com.

How To Write High-Impact Screenplays For Video Games and Film – Part 2 – The Driving Force Behind All Entertainment

“I believe that every single person on this earth is driven by two forces. Number one, their need to avoid pain. And number two, their desire to gain pleasure” – Tony Robbins

What makes a good story a good story? That’s the million dollar question which every writer strives to answer. Everyone has their own theories about it. But let’s just drop the subject of story writing for now (don’t panic, we’ll come back to it soon!). Let’s focus on entertainment in general. Entertainment is a multi billion dollar industry. It covers a wide variety of subjects such as film, TV, books, comics, magazines, music and of course video games.

Now I’ve got a question for you. Books, magazines, films and games – what do they all have in common? What drives a person to fork out hard-earned cash for them?

Why do people drive all the way to the cinema no matter what the weather, stand in line for 10 minutes, pay 10 dollars for a ticket to sit in total darkness while images and sounds are projected onto a huge white screen, then walk out of there wanting to do it all over again another day?

Why do some people queue up for days outside an electronics store or cinema, armed with laptops, bottles of water, folding chairs and blankets just so they can be first in line when it comes to getting that new games console or to see that new sci-fi epic they’ve been waiting for?

Why do people take the time to listen to music? At the end of the day it’s nothing but waves travelling through the air which creates a vibration when it hits your eardrum? Music can make us smile just as well as it can make us cry. Some people behave in crazy, irrational ways while listening to certain music. So what’s so special about a bunch of sounds layered on top of one another that has people going nuts?

Ask anyone what compels them to watch a certain film or play a game and you will get answers like, “It’s got a great plot!”, “It has amazing gameplay!”, or “The main character is awesome!”. But what do all these things mean? What is really meant when you call something “awesome” or “amazing”?

Here’s my opinion. No matter what it is, film, games, books or music – all these things have one thing in common. They all have the ability to change the way you feel. It can all be summed up in one word — emotion!

When you buy a film, game or book, in reality you’re not buying a film, game or book – you’re buying what you believe to be a worthwhile emotional ride which you think you’re going to get from watching, playing or reading. Without that, the entire entertainment industry would flop.

Now I can hear some of you shouting stuff out at me, so please allow me to explain with a few examples (*takes a deep breath*).

Nobody goes to the cinema to see a bunch of moving images synchronised with a bunch of sounds. The pleasure comes from your interpretation of those images and sounds and what they ultimately mean to you. It’s the emotional ride you get from following the character’s struggles, triumphs, arcs of change, etc which has you raving about it the next day. It’s the feeling you get from seeing the guy succeed at getting the girl or even tragically losing her which has you in tears. And yes, for some people (though not all) it’s even the thrill of watching explosive special effects or blood and gore (everyone’s different and some people love that stuff). There’s not one single film or game out there which appeals to 100% of the world’s population – it’s impossible! The emotional intensity and triggers vary from person to person which is why everyone has their own idea of what the perfect film or game would be.

When people play video games, in reality they’re not really interested in the actual moving images on the screen or the sounds coming from the speakers. It’s all about the feelings of relaxation and enjoyment which comes from being given a set goal surrounded by one or more rules. The need to play is embedded deep down inside every human and animal, because doing so makes us feel good. The thrill of solving a tough problem or overcoming a challenge makes us feel good. Think of any game you consider to be “amazing”. The only reason you liked it was because when you played it, on a deeper subconscious level you felt good doing so. It’s all about feeling good.

As you’ve probably already guessed, the same applies to music. People don’t care about a bunch of “sound waves”. The only reason we listen to our favourite artists is because music has the ability to change the way we feel at any given moment. Certain sequences and timing of musical notes can actually trigger specific emotions within us and filmmakers and games producers use this to their advantage.

Silly question, but have you played Skyrim? Did you notice how they used a powerful soundtrack to add depth and feeling to such a beautifully detailed world? That was one of the best examples of what I consider to be appropriately selected music (a topic for another time). Let’s be honest, when you were hit square in the chest by the tremendous force and sheer majesty of that orchestra, the emotional experience was so intense it really made you feel like you were there. I’m getting a little melodramatic here but I love that soundtrack so much I want the audio CD set (and I never buy game soundtracks!). Jeremy Soule is now on my list of highly respected composers alongside greats such as Hans Zimmer. Come to think of it, the Skyrim soundtrack had an almost ‘Da Vinci Code’ feel to it. Search YouTube for a track called ‘Kyrie For The Magdalene’ and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

Now let me ask you a question. If the developers of Skyrim replaced Jeremy Soule’s beautiful masterpiece with The Benny Hill theme tune (Yakety Sax) would it have had the same emotional effect on you? I’d seriously doubt it! I can almost hear you giggling at the thought, and I think I just heard someone shout, “Blasphemy!” :)

If you’ve played my little game called ‘Anaksha Dark Angel’, you’ll notice how each cutscene has it’s own musical mood. These weren’t just randomly put in there. I carefully auditioned and selected each track to make the player actually feel the emotion I intended them to feel. As a matter of fact, when it comes to buying stock production music you can actually list tracks by overall feeling or emotion.

Like I said before, different types of music trigger different emotions within us. Adding music to an emotional scene is a classic one-two punch that’s been used for years by filmmakers. Win the audience over with the characters then melt their hearts with the soundtrack. Twice the power, means twice the emotional intensity.

Emotion is the DNA of all entertainment

Now here’s the problem. Packing a story with lots and lots of emotion might sound like a good idea but it’s not that easy. Using too much of one emotion can actually have a negative effect. Let me explain with an example.

What if you were watching a classic boy meets girl romance movie, you became attached to the characters, you were loving the chemistry between them for the first 20 minutes… but that’s all that happened. The whole film is this sappy, lovey-dovey, stick-two-fingers-down-your-throat vomit fest of how this guy meets this girl and the whole time they do nothing but send each other text flirts, joke around, make out and then finally get married in the end. There’s no obstacles in the guy’s path to overcome in order to win the girl over, it’s just a straight, easy ride.

I’m sure you’d agree most audience members would feel cheated and annoyed (that’s just another word for experiencing negative emotions) and probably wouldn’t recommend it to their friends. But why? It had the emotion – love and romance is all about feeling good, right? So why would this script have opposite effect and make people feel bad? The answer is simple. Although many people would give their right arm to be part of a relationship like this in real life, it doesn’t work on the screen because people don’t come to the cinema to watch movies about ordinary people with carefree lives doing easy things. Audiences love emotional variety and want to see the character struggle, jump through hoops and work intelligently towards avoiding pitfalls, overcoming major challenges to ultimately achieve his/her reward in the end.

The same applies to video games. If a game is too easy or too hard (*cough*Dark Angel Level 13*cough*), people will be annoyed. By the way I did fix the famous ‘level 13’ in the end and it’s a lot easier now. lol Hey what can I say, my strong point has always been story and cinematics, not game design but I gave it a good shot anyway (n0 pun intended). 😉

So now, instead of just emotion being the driving force, it has now become something called emotional balance. Since we’re focusing on stories here, emotional balance in a screenplay is the art of carefully structuring a story so the main protagonist (the character the audience sides with) goes through a series rough rides, ordeals and challenges which he/she overcomes to ultimately win the goal in the end. During the course of the journey, the audience will learn to love the character for their unique qualities/flaws and should be able to plot the protagonist’s arc-of-change in order to hopefully see them emerge at the other side as a better, wiser person.

When someone says, “The ending was terrible”, “The characters were dull and lifeless” or “I didn’t care whether the main protagonist lived or died”, it’s just another way of saying the emotional balance didn’t live up to their expectations.

So how do we create this emotional balance within a story and more importantly how do we do it correctly in order to win the hearts of the audience? The truth is, it’s not an easy thing to craft but I’m really going to do my best to explain the theories and techniques I’ve learnt over the years, so you guys can go do the same thing (or something better I hope!). We’ll meet again in the next chapter, so til next time.

All content is © copyright Arif Majothi, 2012 and is exclusive to the ArifGames.com blog. You are not permitted to reproduce or republish any part of this content. Please respect my right to do my own thing with my own rules. Report all content leeches and thieves to arifgames.com.

How To Write High-Impact Screenplays For Video Games and Film – Part 1 – Introduction

People think prostution is the oldest trade when in reality, story telling is the oldest trade“. – Quote from a friend of mine who is a film producer

Check out the quote above and see what you think of it. I’ve heard it many times from him over the years. It’s true that as humans, one of our most beloved pastimes is hearing about the struggles, conquests and lives of others. Story telling has evolved over thousands of years from simple drawings on cave walls to the mighty cinema screen. But recently a new way of telling a story has come about over the past few decades, as it evolved once more and managed to weave its way into the fabric of interactive video games.

Now we all know the main purpose of a game is the gameplay. Look at Tetris for example. It’s a great, solid game and it does the job perfectly. No story, no nothing. Does having a story in a game really make it a better game? Is there really any need? Some people think it’s pointless having hours of in-game cutscenes and I totally respect that. But you can’t deny the popularity of games out there which are backed up by lovable characters and a great story line. I for one, absolutely love them and believe there should be more!

It’s true, not everyone plays video games. However, pretty much every one I know does appreciate the value of a decent story whether it’s at the cinema, on TV or in a book/magazine. It’s human nature. People are interested in people. That’s why soaps and dramas are so popular. It’s all about the emotional ride we experience from watching them and whether we like it or not, story based games are here to stay.

Do you remember the way you felt when you stepped out of a cinema after experiencing some awesome blockbuster? Or when the DVD rolled the end credits, you finally snapped out of your hypnotic trance and you were back in your living room? You were so engrossed by the experience that you forgot about reality and were temporarily inside the filmmaker’s world. It was an amazing feeling wasn’t it? Remember telling all your friends about it the next day? Remember how you swore to pre-order the DVD? Do I need to say any more? You get what I’m saying, right?

Filmmakers have emotionally moved audiences for over a century. People enjoy watching movies in order to feel love, joy, anger, sadness, hope, surprise, fear, anticipation, etc. Why should video games be any different?

We’re now living in an age where you can cram several hours worth of cinematics onto a disc along with a great game and you can finally deliver the mind-blowing impact you get from watching a well-written feature film. Some developers take their story telling very seriously and manage to do a fantastic job of integrating a great set of cinematics into their games. But unfortunately (and this is sad) there are still some who despite the big budgets and resources available always make a mess of what could have been an awesome epic tale. I’m sure you’ve all experienced those before. It’s not always the case, but I’ve noticed that some games which pass through the sacred slot of my XBox 360 or the hallowed hard drives of my beloved PC somehow seem to disappoint when it comes to entertaining me with a great story (and I hire a of a lot of games every month). The disc goes straight back, and my list of ‘games to buy’ doesn’t get any bigger.

Why is that? It’s nothing to do with technology any more. Back in the 70’s and 80’s for example you couldn’t really put epic mind-blowing cinematics and visuals in a game because of technological restrictions. But times have changed now. With the technology and the budgets we have today, there are no more excuses.

My background is in film visual effects. I’ve been around directors, actors and screenplays for a large chunk of my life. But I only started taking writing seriously several years ago. Then I made my first attempt at writing the screenplay and back story for a game called “Anaksha Female Assassin”. This game was both a blessing and a curse. I, like a lot of people, thought I could write….I was wrong. Yes it was a great concept with great potential but like a typical beginner I made a lot of fatal mistakes which make me cringe when I look back on them. So when I made the decision to create a sequel, I also made the decision to learn as much I as I possibly could about the art of screenwriting. I went on Amazon and spent so much money on screenwriting books that I still haven’t read them all. It took me many long months to understand the things I’ve learnt. I became obsessed with it. I wanted to make it my pet. Learn everything I could. Master each area of this subject. I was so dedicated with my mission that I could think of nothing else. I, like a lot of people out there, wanted to ‘get it’ and was going to do anything to ‘get it’.

I remember in Dec 2008, I was admitted into hospital for major abdominal surgery. As soon as I got into the ward I pulled down that little computer screen they have above the beds and began looking at websites filled with screenwriting resources (I specifically remember reading the Blue Velvet screenplay among several others). The operation I was undergoing was potentially risky, took over 4 hours of delicate work by two teams led by a veteran surgeon and professor. I remember when I woke up after the op, the first thing I did was ask the nurse, “Did the operation go well?”. She smiled and said, “Yes it went extremely well”. As soon as I heard those words and received her confirmation that my life and health was going to be OK, my mind immediately flipped back to my obsession with writing, as I lay there in the recovery ward thinking about the plot for Anaksha Dark Angel once again.

It sounds crazy but that’s how dedicated I was to learn to do this the correct way. (I think the only time I wasn’t obsessing over it was when they pulled the epidural out of my spine and shot me up with a dose of morphine because I was in so much pain. My mind, physical senses and perception of time and reality went completely nuts! I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy! :( Once the bad trip was gone however, the aftermath ‘high’ was totally awesome though. I won’t lie to you about that. 😉 )

The screenplay for Anaksha Dark Angel (the sequel to Female Assassin) changed several times during the course of two years due to mistakes I made early one. But I kept rewriting, and rewriting and applying new things that I was constantly learning from books and DVDs. I’m proud to say that in the end, I ended up with something I am extremely happy with. :)

I’ve learnt a lot, and have been to hell and back to get this information, during the course of which I’ve even written and co-written screenplays for films, games and animations for a few professionals I know. Even now when I watch a DVD movie, I will have a notepad and pen out and will be jotting down certain points throughout the film and making notes on anything interesting I encounter.

If you’ve ever wanted to write a script for a film or a video game, but were unsure how to go about it then this little course is for you. Even if you’ve been writing for a while, you may learn something new which you’ve not encountered before. The information I’m going to share with you isn’t available anywhere else because I’ve had to work some of it out myself. That’s why I’m writing it down, not just for your benefit but also for my own, so I don’t forget. There’s many ways to write a screenplay. I’ll be teaching you my personal way.

I’ll be splitting the whole course into several potential parts/chapters so please read and re-read it carefully and try to understand some of the concepts I’ll be introducing you to. I’m not guaranteeing you’ll go out there and write the next Shawshank, but if you take the time to practice and master this craft you will be so much more confident the next time you sit down to write the back story to your new game, or your agent calls you up because their client wants you to write them an epic tale (assuming you have an literary agent).

I’m not claiming to be perfect. Every writer is constantly in a learning phase and strives to know more. I’m only showing you what I know.

During this series you will learn:

The True Driving Force Behind All Entertainment
The Log Line: Creating an Exciting Foundation
Crafting a Bulletproof Plot Structure
The Life, Death and Anatomy Of a Successful Scene/Cutscene
Creating Lovable Characters That People Can Become Attached To
Why “Darlings and Babies” Are a Bad Thing
Writing Effective Dialogue The Correct Way
Problem Solving and How To Eliminate “Writer’s Block”
Formatting a Screenplay The Professional Way

Please note, over time I’ll be adding to this series, deleting things, correcting mistakes, updating and editing it to make sure you have the most concise, most upto date information I can deliver. The chapters you see above may or may not make it into the final version. I might even change the title, who knows.  As one of my filmmaker friends always says, “We’ll just have to suck it and see”.  Yeah that sounds a little dirty, but you get he point. :) Let’s just do this and see how it turns out, hmm?

If you have any questions you can find me at ????@arifgames.com or alternatively at ????@anaksha.com (Replace the four question marks with my first name).

I’ll sign off for now and I’ll see you next time. I’ll be using the Anaksha material as examples and teaching aids so I will be announcing all new chapters of this course via the Anaksha mailing list and the Anaksha facebook group and the ArifGames facebook group, so if you want to keep upto date with this then I suggest you either sign up for one of those, or just keep an eye on this blog.

All content is © copyright Arif Majothi, 2012 and is exclusive to the ArifGames.com blog. You are not permitted to reproduce or republish any part of this content. Please respect my right to do my own thing with my own rules. Report all content leeches and thieves to arifgames.com.