Script Tip: Tragic Lovers

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When entering the business side of screenwriting, it’s very important to have more than one script, and several additional ideas in a rough outline or treatment form. The reasons for this are that even if you write one great script, the subject matter may not be timely, or the studio’s marketing plan calls for dramas and you’ve written a comedy. As a first-time writer, you may be able to attract producers with a single story, but they will often ask to see what other material you have since the screenplay they read didn’t match what they were looking to make next. I recommend having at least two fairly well-developed ideas before you set off for Hollywood, and to the extent possible, try to select subjects that would not be too expensive to shoot. The movie business is about creating inexpensive product and selling with a high profit margin.

story ideasHow do you find two or more new stories when you may have spent a year intensely involved in a script?  Take a situation that intrigues you, add your versions of the main characters and take a crack at writing a few pages explaining how the story would work. For example, a while back I read an article about two 18-year old American teenagers, a boy and a girl, who dropped out, rode the rails and lived like hobos. He was a refugee from a wealthy family and she was a beautiful cipher with no past. One day, after a particularly tough life event, the boy finds himself spontaneously proposing marriage and her accepting. The next day, as they are changing trains, she is hit full on and killed!

I was sad that this was a real-life event but intrigued at the idea of a modern Romeo and Juliet crossed by fate. Stanley Kubrick, the great director once said that he made the film Lolita because it was a modern tragic love story.

This real life event has the hallmarks of a modern tragic love story – lovers crossed by fate. As soon as I read the article I couldn’t resist starting to imagine the story as a movie: a young girl traveling on the rails, looking for something. A young scion from a family of industrialists runs away from his prep school. They meet in a boxcar and he must defend her honor from other dangerous fellow tramps. Then, they share food, fall in love. I’ve just created a first act. If I stay roughly to the actual story, I also know the ending – she dies. The next step would be to reread the article, decide who the characters were going to be, and create the relationship between them, which would help me get the second act. If the script I am peddling is a romantic comedy, I might write this as a romantic drama to demonstrate my versatility, or turn it into a dark romantic comedy to show how to specialize. Either strategy could work. The trick when working directly from life is to be inspired by, but not report the events.

Here’s the exercise:

Find a real-life event in a newspaper magazine or on-line that appeals to you.  Write a list of the basic details. Then look at who the characters are. Decide what genre the screenplay would be drama, comedy etc. See if there’s a first act. If there is, there’s also an ending. The first act sets up the story and Act III should pay it off.

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