Kevin Thompson here. We sit on the Florida front porch, rocking away “in all kinds of weather,” as the song We are the Boys of Old Florida states. And it’s true. We are the “pollen state” right now. Mow your yard, and you look like a bad impression of Pig Pen from Peanuts. Everything is yellow, and we haven’t had any significant rain in over a month. Without further delay, I want to introduce a gentleman who has been working to transform the minds and hearts of moviegoers with the message of God’s truth for years now. His work has opened doors for screenwriters and many others in the movie industry.
Welcome,Dr. Ted Baehr, to the Florida front porch! Dr. Baehr, grab a chair, a glass of tea (do they drink sweet tea in California?), and tell us about your book like we’re a reader in a bookstore who has just picked it up, and we know nothing about it.
Ted Baehr’s Reel to Real provides 45 inspirational devotions that exemplify principles from God’s Word, using powerful moments from over 150 great movies. Each devotion is insightful and uplifting, illustrating a meaningful theme.
A poor story wanders about, gets lost and bores an audience.
In a baseball game, the team with the most runs wins. You watch the game to see if the team that you like can get the most runs and win the game. Imagine how boring baseball would be if there was nothing to win: if “games” were like practice sessions where players just hit and fielded balls without a clear purpose. No one would want to pay to watch.
A premise says, “To win, I must show you that [premise].” It’s the filmmaker’s job to prove the premise with every ounce of skill they can muster.
The baseball team intent on winning a game does so with great pitching, fielding, hitting, running, and strategy. It’s obvious from the first pitch to the last what the goal of every action is. It’s to win.
A great movie aims to prove its premise with script, acting, lighting, sound, music, and editing. Hundreds of experts in their craft work to prove the premise, just as baseball players strive to win a game.
Think of it a little like Jesus Christ telling a parable. His parables were often stories, well told. They had characters doing things for a reason. Jesus didn’t tell the story of the prodigal son just to entertain his listeners. He was proving a premise about God’s love for those who’ve done wrong. His parable about the Good Samaritan proved that Godly love is not just meant for family and friends. Every character in the story, and every action they took, was important in proving the premise.
A premise has three distinct parts. A “this,” a “does” and a “that.”
The premise of the prodigal son story would be, “God forgives sin.” There is a subject “God”; an action “forgives”; and, an object “sin.”
On his way home, the prodigal son does not pass a Samaritan in a ditch. Such an event would be a distraction from the premise of the prodigal son story. On the other hand, the jealous brother is a powerful subplot. The jealous brother serves as a contrast to God’s love. The brother reveals human nature. His role in the story makes God’s grace look that much more amazing.
Subplots, like all aspects of filmmaking, should serve the premise.
A great movie delivers on the premise with show, rather then tell. Audiences don’t come to hear sermons delivered in dialogue.
Imagine a movie of the prodigal son story. The lighting, the music and a close-up on the father’s face, when he first sees his wayward son approaching, should say in music and image all you need to know about love and forgiveness. Body language and action should be like an inspiring work of art as he runs to meet his son. An audience should be in tears before the two speak a word to each other. What they are about to say should already have been said with facial expressions.
David Lean was a master of creating emotion without dialogue. In movies such as THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, he cut gracefully between sweeping scenery, and close-ups, telling far more than dialogue ever could.
Every aspect of a movie works to prove the premise. In a movie, you can “prove” a premise that’s not true. The entire American sexual revolution was built on media “proving” sex outside of marriage is healthy and desirable. It’s been a disaster.
Fortunately, we’ve been seeing more and more movies with premises supportive of faith and values. We long to see this growth continue.
Without a premise it’s unwise to start a script. It’s like wandering around in the dark. With a premise you have a reason for each character, each scene and each line of dialogue.
Ideas for scripts don’t always emerge the form of premise. You may get an idea for some situation and characters that you find to be entertaining or inspiring. Before you go off building a story around a clever idea, pause and ponder the premise such an inspiration demands.
You’ll find that beginning with a solid premise will save you from dealing will all sorts of headaches as your script develops.
It’s healthy to ask yourself on a regular basis, “How does what I’m writing help prove the premise?”
If it doesn’t help, or if it actually hurts, drop it.
Fifty years ago 20th Century Fox released Rogers and Hammerstein’s THE SOUND OF MUSIC. It remains a favorite of millions of moviegoers. Rodgers and Hammerstein ate, slept and dreamt their craft. It drove them. Both saw their work as something they had to devote their life to. It was their passion. Both demanded of themselves exemplary work.
In a world filled with would-best they succeeded because they were creative, innovative and persistent. Before their big success with OKLAHOMA there were years of study, struggle, rejections, failures, disappointments and growth. Their passion drove them through many dark days to become the ones famous for transforming both Broadway and movie musicals.
If you wish to begin scriptwriting start by being realistic. Out of hundreds of thousands of scripts one might get made into a movie. Of the few thousand movies made each year only around 100 are made by the major studios. These generate 95 percent of the box office. Of the 100 major studio movies only a handful are a big success.
To get your movie made (and into theaters) you’re competing with people who wrote FORREST GUMP, THE AVENGERS, DESPICABLE ME, and E.T. Even these writers don’t get all their scripts made into movies. When they do, not all are a success.
There are about 750 players in Major League Baseball. Dabbling in scriptwriting is like dabbling in baseball. No one playing in the major leagues has a full-time job in other fields and plays baseball at night and on the weekends.
Now that I’ve done my best to discourage you, let me encourage you. There is always room for a truly great script. If you’re a movie fan you know this. Of the hundreds of movies in theaters there are few you’re willing to pay to see. Of those, some are disappointments. You want more good movies. Hollywood wants more good movies. Hollywood wants great scripts just the way Major League Baseball wants more great players. Great baseball players can come from anywhere.
Great scriptwriters can come from anywhere.
Scriptwriting is all about great stories, well told. You may have a great story. The “well told” means that you need to master the craft of story telling. A great story poorly told is like a young man with incredible talent hitting baseballs who’s unwilling to practice or be taught the full range of skills necessary to be a professional baseball player. Imagine how much talent there is that goes to waste because people lack the commitment to develop it.
Much more common is the poor story that the author doesn’t realize is poor. Before you even begin writing, read the scripts of some of the most popular movies of all time. Study what makes them entertaining. The story of how your grandmother makes lemon pies is unlikely to become a blockbuster movie. Learn what makes a story great.
Ask yourself, “How many people would pay $50 to see this story?” “How many people would want to buy this story on a DVD?” Don’t fool yourself thinking millions of people want to see the story of your dog dying of cancer. They want action, adventure, comedy and emotion. They want to laugh and cry. They want to be thrilled and inspired. They want to see loveable characters rise to meet astounding challenges.
You must provide entertainment value. You will not play major league baseball unless you can play well enough that baseball fans want to see you play. The better you play the more they’ll want to see you. Great players have fans who come to games, buy jerseys and help get others to do likewise.
You will not make successful movies unless audiences believe your story will be worth their time and money. You become truly successful when audiences become your fans — telling friends and family that your story is worth paying to see. You’re a home run hitter if fans will want to watch your movie again and again. You’re a hall-of-famer if your movie is selling in some format 50 years after it was first released.
Don’t even start writing if you’re not ready to commit to creating great stories, well told. It is not easy. There’s a lot to learn. It’s a craft like learning to play in a symphony. Your odds of success are small, but if you have a burning desire to do what it takes, go for it. Dive in, study, study, study and work hard. Pursue excellence with a passion.
Every great screenwriter started somewhere. Every great screenwriter lived through many struggles. Brace yourself. Expect long study, hard work, and many rejections. Pursue creating high entertainment value with a passion.
Basic screenplay writing excerpted from HOW TO SUCCEED IN HOLLYWOOD (WITHOUT LOSING YOUR SOUL)
For Better or for Worse
Communicating effectively requires learning and applying the basic principles of language, grammar, rhetoric, technique, and general rules that govern each genre and medium. There are three levels of such principles: general principles (which apply to most communications), genre specific principles, and media specific principles.
There are also several steps involved in producing powerful communications, including movies and television programs. Here is a brief outline of the most important foundational steps in preparing your communication. Each genre and medium will modify this outline by adding or subtracting steps or substeps. However, this outline is your basic guide to the steps required to communicate effectively.
12 Basic Foundational Steps to Communicating Effectively:
In light of who you are, why you want to communicate and well thought out research and ascertainment, make a brief note of what you want to say, your idea, conviction, or your key thought. This idea, thought, or statement must be something that you believe and want to communicate through a movie or television program.
Ask and answer the appropriate ascertainment questions to target your audience, determine your genre and medium, and plan the execution of your communication.
Rephrase your idea or key thought into an active premise that you can prove in your communication, taking into consideration your answers to the pertinent ascertainment questions.
Identify the elements needed to prove your premise, most of which are inherent within your premise. In drama, these elements are your characters, conflict, climax, and resolution.
Structure these elements taking into consideration your audience, genre, medium of choice and your answers to the ascertainment questions which are appropriate for your communication.
Write out, plan, or script your communication, punctuating it with technical, dramatic, or literary effects to capture and retain audience interest.
Prepare, storyboard, and/or rehearse your communication.
Produce, polish, or otherwise finish your communication.
Edit, review and revise your communication.
Deliver, distribute or broadcast your communication.
Survey your audience to find out how effective your communication was and how it can be improved.
Review and revise your communication to improve it if possible.
Half of this process is preparation. Many people fail to prepare or dash off a script and believe that they will perfect it when the right person buys it. However, you never have a second chance to make a first impression, so you need to perfect your script right from the beginning, even if you need to change it later.
Remember that the average movie takes nine years from start to finish. The Passion of the Christ took ten years. Evita took twenty–three years. Batman took seventeen years.
There are several reasons why it takes so long. First, there are 300,000 scripts submitted every year to the Writers Guild of America and many more are written that are never submitted, aside from the flood of novels every year, but less than three hundred movies open in theaters every year. Thus, most scripts never make it into production. Second, Hollywood movies cost over $104 million to produce and distribute in 2010, and it takes a long, long time to get all the elements together so that some distributor or investor will want to put up this kind of money. Third, most people take years to get the script right. The Los Angeles Times interviewed a woman who was trying for twenty years to sell her script. She said that in all those years she had not had the time to take a scriptwriting course or read a book on scriptwriting. The Los Angeles Times and all of us should be perplexed: What was she doing all that time that she could not take a moment to learn her chosen craft?
Communication is an important part of the uniqueness of humankind. The human drive to communicate through a variety of forms, formats and media is remarkable. In the garden of Eden, God tasked Adam with naming all the animals. That desire to name, to create, and to communicate is still one of the most essential human traits, lasting from infancy through adulthood.
Christians and Jews have long been known as people of “The Book.” Since the Bible is full of stories and Christians are called by Jesus to communicate the Good news, which He did through Parables, Christians are a storytelling people. In faithful obedience to this call, they tell the Good news through every conceivable medium and genre. Thus, the church invented modern drama with the Mediaeval Mystery Plays. And, since the beginning of the motion picture industry, Christians have used movies to communicate the gospel because movies and television programs are the most powerful, audio–visual storytelling media.
Story, image and effect
There are three elements of a movie or television program that help capture the attention of the audience: story, image and effect.
When I was the Director of the TV Center at City University of New York (CUNY), Brooklyn College, one of the professors, Jim Day, had been a founder of Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) that produced Sesame Street. CTW would test every program. In one segment, they wanted to show the difference between an internal skeleton and an external skeleton. The animation showed an ant while a voice over said that the ant had an external skeleton so it could not grow as big as an elephant, which had an internal skeleton. As the narrator spoke, the animated illustration showed the ant growing as big as an elephant and then exploding. When CTW tested the segment and asked the audience whether an ant could grow as big as an elephant, 90 percent of the audience said “yes, an ant can grow as big as an elephant,” because they had just seen it in the animated sequence, and the visual was much more powerful than the audio.
CTW also tested the extent to which each Sesame Street program would capture and hold the attention of the audience. CTW would show a program segment and have a distracter machine next to the TV set. (The distracter machine was merely some blinking lights.) Observers would watch the eyes of the audience to see when they looked away from the TV program and at the distracter machine. At that point, CTW would put in another effect, such as a cut, dissolves, pan, wipe, or animated sequence, that would hold the audience’s attention.
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables, and He would not speak anything to them without a parable, so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled:
I will open My mouth in parables; I will declare things kept secret from the foundation of the world.
One day more than 70 years ago, two literary giants in England stood talking about language, stories, and religion. In the middle of the conversation, the taller gentleman blurted to his slightly balding companion, “ Here’s my point: Just as a word is an invention about an object or an idea, so a story can be an invention about Truth.”
“I’ve loved stories since I was a boy,” the other man admitted. “Especially stories about heroism and sacrifice, death and resurrection. …But, when it comes to Christianity . . . well, that’s another matter. I simply don’t understand how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2000 years ago can help me here and now.”
The first man earnestly replied, “ But don’t you see, Jack? The Christian story is the greatest story of them all. Because it’s the real story. The historical event that fulfills the tales and shows us what they mean.”
About a week later, Jack—also known as C. S. Lewis, the author of the classic books Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia (among many other works)—announced his conversion to Christianity to a friend. Lewis attributed much of his decision to his conversation with J. R. R. Tolkien.[i] Of course, Tolkien is the author of one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, The Lord of the Rings, which has been transformed into a magnificent movie trilogy by director Peter Jackson. Although Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, didn’t always see eye to eye with Lewis, who was more inclined toward Protestantism, they both understood the truth of the ultimate story.
Storytelling and Mythmaking
As Tolkien and Lewis said so long ago, stories matter deeply. They connect us to our personal history and to the history of all time and culture. Human beings are meaning seekers and meaning makers. We strive to connect ourselves to our experiences and the experiences of others. We are addicted to those “aha!” moments in our lives when we see meaning, purpose, and significance.
Stories help us do this. They bring us laughter, tears, and joy. They stimulate our minds and stir our imaginations. Stories help us escape our daily lives to visit different times, places, and people. They can arouse our compassion and empathy, spur us toward truth and love, or sometimes even incite us toward hatred or violence.
Different kinds of stories satisfy different needs. For example, a comedy evokes a different response from us than a tragedy. A hard news story on the front page affects us differently than a human interest story in the magazine section, or a celebrity profile next to the movie and television listings. While different kinds of stories satisfy different needs, many stories share common themes, settings, character types, situations, and other recurrent archetypal patterns.
Many stories focus on one individual; often a heroic figure who overcomes many trials and tribulations to defeat evil or attain a valuable goal. We identify with such heroes because we recognize that we are each on our own journey or quest. How a hero’s journey informs and illuminates our own journey is significant. We look for answers in stories.
Every story has a worldview: a way of viewing reality, truth, the universe, the human condition, and the supernatural world. Looking carefully at a story, we can examine the motifs, meanings, values, and principles it suggests. By examining a story’s worldview, we identify the cultural ideals the story presents and the emotion it evokes. We also determine the moral, philosophical, social, psychological, spiritual, and aesthetic messages the story conveys.
Greetings from Sarah Sundin in California! Today I have the honor of interviewing Dr. Ted Baehr. Not only has Dr. Baehr penned many books, but he is the founder of the popular and influential Movieguide® review service, which is having a surprisingly positive effect on Hollywood. Check out the statistics in the final question below!
Ted, how did you get into writing?
When I was the president of the company that produced THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE for CBS Television in 1979 and 1980 that had 37 million viewers and won an Emmy Award, Roy Carlisle from Harper & Row called and offered me a contract to write GETTING THE WORD OUT. I had, of course, written booklets and other materials for years, but that contract changed my publishing.