C J Powers

CJ Powers is an author/speaker residing in the Chicagoland area. As a Writer/Director/Producer he is an international script consultant and conducts screenwriting workshops. His films released internationally and television programs aired on CBS, PBS, ABC, the Family Channel, and various syndicated stations. The majority of CJ’s directing awards, including the Silver CINDY and Crystal Communicator of Excellence, were for family films. He received additional honors from the U.S. and International Film and Video Festival and the New York Film Festival. He is a guest writer for Christianity Today’s Singles Connection eNewsletter and has also been an Arts & Entertainment columnist for the DuPage Christian.

CJ can be reached through his blog at http://cjpowersonline.com/

Developing a Great Story

Writer’s block is something of a myth born through isolation. Brainstorming with a friend or observing unique behavioral qualities of a person you’ve yet to meet can clearly spark plenty of creative ideas. Writer Willa Cather, while arguing about Nebraska being a “storehouse of literary material,” shared that there is an abundance of inspiration available for writers whose “only need is the eye to see.”

Every filmmaker I’ve met desires to tell a story. The problem has been finding the audience that wants to see it. To find and endear the audience to the filmmaker’s art, some focus their story ideas on niche markets, while others try to create a universal story that will appeal to a larger general audience. Regardless of how market specific the writer becomes, he eventually learns that no matter how brilliant the filmmaker, a miserable story is still bad.

To help improve the quality of a story, five things are needed to make a story great.

The heart of every great screenplay is conflict. We all know how boring a scene can play out if two characters are in full agreement with each other. It is conflict from each character’s opposing goals that stimulates interest and drives the story forward. While both characters can hold the same overarching goal, it is critical they have opposing views of how to achieve it. One great way to reveal a scene’s conflict is to craft it in a way that asks, “Why are those two arguing, and why are they both right?”

Most stories crash and burn during act two because the writer fails to adhere to the strong three-act structure held to for years by great writers. The first act is needed to establish the situation or the story’s background. It typically ends with a turning point, around pages seventeen to twenty-one, that sends the protagonist from his thesis world to an antithesis world.

Act two is filled with many complications and growth for the protagonist to help him prepare for the climactic battle in act three. Many screenwriters divide act two in half, with the first part being more humorous and the second more dramatic. Act two concludes, around page eighty-five, with another turning point that sends the protagonist back into his thesis world for the main battle.

Act three is filled with the main battle and climax, followed quickly by the conclusion or resolve, around page 105 to 110, where the protagonist emerges into a new ideal thesis world. With 60 percent of a film’s page count taking place in act two, it is imperative that the story idea has enough facets to drive multiple complications and emotions.

Ever since The Great Train Robbery, screenwriters have understood the importance of telling a story visually. Some of my editing friends make it a point to watch their films with the sound off to make sure the story is still clear. Films that take place in a character’s mind regularly flop at the box office, where it might have gotten legs as a book. Film as a medium is only good to dramatize or visualize a story. Some might argue it is also good for verbalization, which it can handle, but most know the stage was primarily designed for speaking.

Not all stories play well on screen, and it is the writer’s job to know what will work. Some topics must be tossed if the audience can’t find it plausible, no mater how realistic it is or how much the audience is able to suspend disbelief. Spielberg’s E.T. and Lucas’s Yoda were well received, but Lucas’s Howard flopped for its implausibility, because we know what a duck is supposed to look like versus an alien.

One of the great differences between the cinema and television is the vast visualization and panoramic view of life brought to the screen from a wide-angle lens and numerous locations. Since its inception, television shows have been shot on few sets with lots of close-ups, while film has explored new vistas from suburbia to the orient and on to Pandora.

Few writers are willing to admit that good films deal with sex and violence. It’s as if some writers desire to be above those base instincts, yet top grossing films always have it—just not gratuitously. Think of it as sensuality and dramatic action. Or if those terms are still too strong, try using the words passion and tension. These are the building blocks that create the needed endurance that will keep a film from dying in act two. And, done properly, it will cause the audience to long for the next scene in hopes of learning what might develop.

My various columns have allowed me to hear the most common question raised among Christian filmmakers: “Why are Christian films so bad?” The answer is simple. Most Christian film producers have a commitment to tell stories as cleanly as possible, so cleanly that they avoid conflict, sex, and violence. Because the industry is in its infant stages, the Christian producers aren’t willing to pay out the big bucks for great locations, forcing the directors to capture talking heads on few sets.

In talking with Christian screenwriters, I’ve learned that most find their messages far more important than story structure. That leaves only the element of visualization as a tool for the Christian filmmaker to tell a story, which, unfortunately, most lack the experience needed; therefore, it is expected that most Christian stories told on film will be bad.

Content Copyright © 2010 by CJ Powers. All rights Reserved.

CJ Powers can be reached for script consultation and translation work at cjpowers7[at]gmail [dot] com.