If I had to choose between the tedious tasks of rebuilding an engine and building one from scratch, I would be equally disenthralled and equally lost. In both cases, success depends upon the same requirement of mechanical ingenuity; there must be the same general understanding of the basic mechanical principles involved to complete either objective. Therefore, to have the ability to do one is to have the ability to do the other.

Mechanical engineering aside, this rule is just as fit when applied to screenwriting. The difference between invention and innovation has not to do with what those basic principles in building a story are, but with how and in what order they are applied. Adapting a story from a play, novel, television concept, newspaper headline, etc. requires the same set of skills as developing one from conflict to resolution; success depends upon the same requirement of creative ingenuity.

Therefore when discussing the series of circumstances that led to the premise and plot of Uptown, an explanation of those basic narrative elements is discussed but the focus remains on how and why those elements were manipulated to fit these events into a form that would best suit the audience of a mainstream film.

In adapting this series of circumstances the following factors were considered primarily:


During the development of Uptown’s outline, peripheral factors joined the ensemble:

Preserving the integrity of the story (which would lead to the theme)
Writing within practical limitations
Writing for maximum production value
Dialogue vs. Improvisation
Pace and transitions between scenes

A basic understanding of the following concepts should keep us on the same page.

Structure is form. It is the foundation of the film; the mold that it sits in. The classic film structure is borrowed from the theatre: the 3-Act Structure. Within the 3-Act Structure, the first act sets up the conflict between protagonist and antagonist; the second act pits them against one another, and the third act resolves the conflict. If you were building a house, Structure would be the shape and material of your foundation (squared, rectangular, triangular, etc.) The 3-Act Structure has been tested and proven to not be the only workable film form. Tarantino has been credited with challenging this system with Pulp Fiction but others have come before him and after him with arguably greater influence. Kurosawa, Fellini, Hitchcock, Altman, Kaufman each represent a different generation of narrative filmmakers that have experimented with structure successfully.

Narrative is plot. It is how the story unfolds; what happens and in what order. If Structure is your foundation, Narrative is the process by which you will build upon it. Often you will have a film that builds its story chronologically, revealing pertinent information in a natural successive order; other times you will have a film break logical continuity with flashbacks, flashforwards, alternate perspectives and other literary devices that reveal narrative information in a nonlinear way. Consider the film Momento, which utilizes the 3-Act Structure but reveals its narrative information in complete reverse chronology. To return to my earlier analogy, this would be like building a house from the rooftop down. The stretching of time and the lapsing of time are also narrative ploys. City of Angels and When Harry Met Sally are both romantic films about falling in love but one slows time to explore the metaphysical properties shared by two connecting souls while the other leaps through time to investigate the psychological development between two budding neurotics. Both films are telling a similar story but since they are each interested in different aspects of falling in love, they each manipulate time to suit their purposes. These are narrative choices.

Style is resonance. It suggests how one should feel about a subject or theme. Style has to do with those aesthetic choices that go into creating a specific effect for the viewer. It is at this point that my mechanical engineering analogy ceases to apply. Style is the epitome of creativity. Here is where the walls are painted and the curtains are chosen; where the furniture is brought in and the backyard is landscaped. In film, the question becomes How would you like your story to be perceived. With humor, with melancholy, with dread? With intellect, with emotion, with physical empathy? Style is the taste, tone, and intensity of your theme. Point of view also informs style. The measurable distance between subjectivity and objectivity is that of sympathy and empathy. Choices in style directly dictate how a viewer will relate to a film’s subject and theme.

Character is embodiment. It is the vessel through which your theme is translated and projected. In building a house, the contractor and his/her crew would be characters, obviously, but so too would be the kitchen table, the place mats, the silverware, and the centerpiece. Through style, each becomes a manifestation of the theme, translated and projected; on a miniature scale, each object represents the practical purpose and aesthetic intent of the whole. Character should not be confused with cast member; not every cast member plays a character; some play props (as in extras). For these purposes, character should only be considered in terms of the significance it holds in projecting the theme. Within this consideration lies the challenge of choosing which attributes a given character will embody. These characteristics should be essential in setting up the basic elements that will create the conflict that will drive the story.

Conflict is opposition. It initiates the story and pushes it toward a climax. Conflict comes in two forms: internal and external. Its internal form is psychological: it occupies the mind of a character which internally prevents him/her from reaching a goal; its external form is physical: it challenges a character by physically preventing him/her from reaching a goal. Hanz Gruber is prevented from achieving his goal in a different way than Will Hunting. Hanz has the physical obstacle of contending with and outsmarting a die-hard NYC cop protecting his wife. Hunting has the challenge of accepting his abusive past by forgiving himself for loving and trusting a series of hostile households. In either case, conflict informs on character which in turn moves the story to eventually (hopefully) a place of resolve. In building a house, any number of obstacles could cause opposition from weather conditions to crew incompetency to expense; any number of problems can crop up to prevent or slow the process of constructing. The greater the numbers of obstacles overcome, the greater the story is to tell.

In considering these basic storytelling devices as they related to Uptown’s evolution, additional concerns immerged: concerns that- for this filmmaker- required simultaneous attention.

Preserving the integrity of the real story became a personal goal when in configuring the story it had become apparent that those forces that drove the actions behind the actual set of circumstances paralleled those forces that inspired our production. Our theme would rise from this association: Open yourself and give yourself. The actual set of circumstances came to pass because two people completely opened themselves to each other. Adapting these circumstances into a film would both validate this achievement and celebrate it—provided the story were told honestly and with integrity. This objective was further stipulated by way of a practical observation: the story was already complete. The less we veered from what actually happened, the better, because the story was strong on its own (structurally sound, narratively engaging, efficiently relatable, emotional, etc.).

Writing within practical limitations requires an honest assessment of time, talent, resources, skills, and funds, and a creative problem solving mindset. In order to prevent delays, distractions, unnecessary debt, and other issues that come with do-it-yourself independents, one must be very wise and practical by writing around what one does not have. Uptown’s limitations included a lack of time and a lack of money. One of these obstacles was self-imposed; the other was assigned by way of poor fortune. Both were dealt with at this early stage of development.

Writing for maximum production value brings an audience into consideration. Some elements of storytelling can be adjusted to heighten the experience of the story. By seizing these opportunities you can make your film more marketable (or watchable) which in turn would make your production more valuable. Special and visual effects were invented for this very purpose, but there are ways to boost the production value on indies, such as fancy camera movements, known actors, music, etc. With Uptown’s inherent limitations- and they were monumental- it would be essential to recognize any opportunity to write in an element that would bolster our production value.

Dialogue vs. Improvisation Do I speak for the characters as a writer, or do I, as a director, allow the actors to speak for the characters? The difference between the two has something to do with how a filmmaker approaches their material- intellectually vs. emotionally- and possibly how their film is intended to be received. By design, a script is an intellectual property; its function is to relay information (emotional information sometimes, but always information); the process of relaying information is that of an intellectual one. The purpose of improvisation is to express a feeling or an attitude. The process of improv is less concerned about the process of communicating and more concerned with actually communicating. Therefore, improvisation is fundamentally an emotional exercise. When considering the practice of one or the other, the filmmaker considers the amount of control they want over the material so as to best dictate how their audience may relate to it.

Pace and transitions between scenes became an early consideration in developing the outline as they are directly related to the narrative. Pace informs tone; tone is the overall mood of the film (light, dark, adventurous, horrific, surreal, etc.) A suspenseful film is drawn out; an action film cuts to the chase; stated as a question, at what rate does the story move forward, or backward. This will inform the average length of the scenes, the action covered within, and how the scenes are joined together (transitions). Pace helps to reveal how the story is told.