Screentalk Producer Robin Rea presents
an exclusive interview with Script Consultant
So, you've got a script in your pocket, and you know it needs some spit and polish before it hits the agent circuit, but to whom do you show it? If you want an opinion, you ask your boyfriend to give it a read, or maybe the next-door neighbor, who seems to have a lot of spare time and is looking for a "project to develop." If you want an informed opinion, if you want a real edge in this business, you show it to a script consultant. Which script consultant? In this town, it helps to know pate from baloney.
Out of seventeen script consultants reviewed in the recent issue of Creative Screenwriting, Dara Marks was ranked #1. Laura Schiff, a feature writer and columnist for the magazine, considers Marks "worth every penny."
Marks has earned her stripes. She has a successful track record both as a film and television writer and as a Development Executive. Her passion now is in consulting and teaching. She was originally trained by Dr. Linda Seger (Making a Good Script Great), whose approach to analysis she considers the best out there and with whom she maintains and treasures a lifelong association and friendship.
DARA MARKS isn't interested in telling you how to write your story. She isn't interested in becoming the next story guru. Her work is about giving the writer skills and techniques to clarify and strengthen his or her vision. Her process allows the writer to work from a deeper, more focused and meaningful place that serves not only the growth and evolution of the character, but also that of the writer.
REA: Some might think a script consultant offers only an opinion as to the workability of a script. But you, and Linda Seger, have worked to bring analysis out of the realm of being a subjective craft.
MARKS: If you don't have a method of breaking the script down, all you really have to give is your best opinion.
Now, your best opinion can be very sophisticated and schooled, but you're really just responding to how something feels. If we're going to work with the structure of a story, you don't want me infecting you with how I would write a script. You want me to reflect back to you what is there and what isn't there in terms of what you're trying to achieve. So, when I do this breakdown, I have the ability to do that for you.
REA: How does this analysis serve the writer?
MARKS: I offer the writer very specific, objective information on what isn't working and where to go to fix it. Let's say in the A story plot line, you have a weak turning point, or perhaps there is no turning point at all. This tells us we've got a big problem, because if there's no first turning point, it's because there wasn't sufficient conflict in the beginning of the story that was strong enough to complicate and pull the story forward. We're not going to address the absence of the turning point until we go back and fix the conflict at the start of the story.
REA: Part of what you teach is to break down the script in terms of all three primary story lines - the plot and two primary subplots. What are those story lines?
MARKS: The A story, or the plot line, is the experience of the protagonist in the external world, and this is where the challenges are set up to assist the inner journey, which takes place in the B and C story. The reason that the plot is in the A position is not because it is the most important of the story lines, but because it is the most visible - this is where the physical activity takes place.
The B and C stories are interior stories. I identify the B story line as the internal journey. It shows me what it is in the character that needs to be healed through his or her experience in the outer world. I identify the C story as the relationship story through which we see the true internal growth and change of a character.
REA: All of the story lines involve the main character?
MARKS: Every primary plot line must involve the protagonist or it's not his or her story. The protagonist, as a character, carries the goals of the plot. So, as soon as we establish what the conflict is, the person who carries the goal of resolving that conflict is the protagonist. And when you are working with internal story lines, which is really what makes deeper, better storytelling, the protagonist then is also the person who carries the internal goal as well.
REA: Do all stories have an internal goal?
MARKS: In a movie like Speed, where there really isn't much of an internal goal, we can define our protagonist as the person who carries the external goal, which is to stop this dangerous killer. The problem with that is the whole police force wants to stop the killer, and then we're back to this random process where we really define our protagonist as the person who gets the most screen time.
REA: How is your Inner Script process different from other analysis out there?
MARKS: Most other in-depth analysis looks at the architecture of the external part of the story. I needed something more, because yes, when it's finished, we can see what a building looks like, but my question was, how do we get to that place in the beginning, what are its origins? As I began to break down the process, that's where this concept of The Inner Script began to evolve. What I started to see is that there's a substructure that we have not been paying enough attention to, and part of that substructure has to do with the transformational arc of the character. This is a word that's thrown around all over the place, and to my knowledge, I have not seen a really in-depth understanding of what this is. As I began to work with this concept of the transformational arc, I began to see that the true structure of the story emanates out of this arc.
REA: Can you elaborate on what this arc is?
MARKS: Whatever our reality is, in terms of who we are as human beings and what our stories are about, there has to be a relationship between the outer story and our internal world. When we see this expressed, we know it. It is very deep within us; it is undeniable truth. So, even if you and I were to see a movie about a seven year old boy who is an Alaskan sled racer, if that story reveals his internal growth and his quest to ascend as a human being within the perimeters of the story that's being revealed, we understand that that's exactly our own experience as well.
REA: Sounds like you're talking about archetypes.
MARKS: I'm talking very much about archetypes, but I'm also trying to translate this into something we can use to develop story. At the very core of my belief I see that great storytelling shows us how a character grows and changes - (that's your protagonist) - within the context of the events that are unfolding - (which is your plot) - from the writer's point of view - (which is the theme or intention of the story)
REA: Would you define theme?
MARKS: The writer's views, values and point of view form the theme or intention of the story. It adheres to the most basic law of nature which is that anything that is alive is either in a state of growth and change and evolvement or it has begun to decay and die. What that does is it immediately throws storytelling into a very simple conflict which asks, what is it going to be: life or death?
REA: So, if you put a car crash as the first turning point, this has to resonate along those thematic lines?
MARKS: You want the car crash to be in connection with what you are developing for the character. What really made the train wreck scene memorable in The Fugitive, was not just the excitement of the incredible crash, but it was the cataclysmic experience of the protagonist at that moment. He had to choose between life and death. And if you notice, one of the things the character does at that very moment was to not only save himself, but save the life of one of the guards. So he was choosing life on a very deep level. We as human beings live in an internal and external world simultaneously, and every single event that happens in our lives externally is there to serve the internal growth of the soul.
REA: That awareness would seem to motivate a writer to make very deliberate story choices.
MARKS: I found most story development happens in a random process. So, if you and a writing partner or you and your producers are sitting around trying to develop a story, you'd say, what if she's from Arkansas? No, I think it's better if she's from Missouri, and instead of a she, let's make it a he, or maybe an alien. Very important story decisions are being made for random reasons. If we make random choices, we're going to get random results. If we can make intentional choices, we're going to get intended results. So, the first and most essential step in developing a story is to define our intentions, and intention for me is theme.
REA: How does a writer find or cultivate a theme?
MARKS: When you get to theme, that's where the writer has got to write what they know, from their own experience, and how, through their views, values and point of view, they perceive the world around them. When you can define this deep internal point of view, then every choice you make in terms of creating character and plot is going to support it.
REA: Can you give us an example from your teaching?
MARKS: One of the stories I work with a lot is Dead Poets Society. The reason that I use this particular screenplay is that the theme is very easy to see. Very early in the story the Professor, played by Robin Williams, takes the boys down into the lobby of the school where there's a trophy case. He shows the boys pictures of all of the students who were around when the school was formed one hundred years ago. Then Williams asks his students, "Do you know where they are today? They're food for worms." Above them is written the words, "Carpe Diem", and he asks the boys if they know what that means. They reply that it means "to seize the day".
That's the essence of the story. The story is about seizing and taking control of the day, which metaphorically means taking control of your life, because if you don't, parents, teachers and society are ready and willing to take control of it for you.
Everything in this story emanated out of that thematic perspective, and therefore all the story choices ceased to be random. The protagonist, which in this case, we split between the four boys, represented different aspects of what it means to be authentic. We see these boys at a very important transitional moment in their lives, in that if they don't learn to defend their authenticity, they will be swallowed up by the same monsters who took over their fathers' lives.
REA: How do you work with writers?
MARKS: I really believe that storytelling is conscious dreaming. We dream in symbols and metaphors - something is swimming around in our unconsciousness that wants to be exposed. I also believe that when a story is approached this way, we can process it by circling inward from what is on the surface, which gives us the ability to go deeper and deeper into its meaning. As we look at the meaning of what comes up, we're going to find something of substance that is also trying to reach the writer.
REA: Do you encourage writers to write a "throw everything into the pot" first draft?
MARKS: Absolutely, because I want to see what their subconscious has to say. I don't care if it's a mess, because when it's a mess, they're going to try things and go off in interesting directions. I believe the main purpose for creating anything is that the piece has to speak to you and show you where you are in your own life. Too often writers write from the perspective, "I'm going to show you what I know." Well, as soon as you start showing us what you already know, you're showing us something dead, inert. If you show us what you're still evolving into and what you're learning, then it's going to have that edge of danger and uncertainty and pain to it. Whenever we see stories like that, they touch our hearts and scare us a little a bit and move us a lot. So, whenever you see something raw like that, it's very wonderful.
REA: So, a writer needs to be wary of starting a story from a thematic perspective, such as I'm going to write about the need to connect to others.
MARKS: Already your left brain is working and not your right brain. You're already processing in an analytical way when you need to be intuiting.
REA: The converse can be true.
MARKS: Yes, when we intuit an idea, too often we put it out there immediately without putting it through any kind of interpretative process. When we do that, we not only short-circuit an audience, we short-circuit ourselves. Just showing us what you've intuited is like taking a walk through the corridors of your mind; it can be very confusing and not very illuminating. As a story analyst, I don't mind looking at the mess, but by the time it gets to the screen, I want to see what you've really sorted out. At some point, we need to switch to the left brain and start finding out what all this stuff means to the writer and start making conscious choices, not random ones.
REA: Do you work with writers of every level?
MARKS: I have writers working on their very first script and writers who are going into production. I believe that it takes such courage to write and to create that I'm willing to give writers on either end of the spectrum 100% of what I have. Because what I really believe is that if you are called to write, you've got to focus on the process of writing and not on the outcome.
REA: Do you encourage your clients to write scripts that will sell?
MARKS: I will be as honest as I can with my clients about commerciality. Sometimes I have clients who've done two screenplays with me, and they're ready to go into a third. Even though I may love their writing, if I feel their screenplays are not commercial enough to sell, I will encourage them to work on something that has more commercial dimension to it. You can get really worn out if no one is paying attention to your writing. Being commercial doesn't have to mean that you've sold out. If you're working from inner intention, then choosing a commercial genre can mean that your views, values and point of view will hit a wider audience.
REA: Are certain genres more commercial?
MARKS: I think marketability, more often than not, has to do with genre. A good thriller, or a really good romantic comedy, are hard to come by and they get gobbled up.
REA: Is there a genre that you see more often than others?
MARKS: I'd say 75% of the scripts I receive to help analyze are character-driven. Now if we look at the films that get made every year, maybe 10% of them are character-driven. There's no value judgment placed on that comment. That's just a realistic view of what gets made. So, while it may be very appealing to write a character study, they are harder to market.
I also believe, and I may be alone in this, but I don't think that a character-driven story is necessarily a better form of story than one that's action-driven. Homer and Shakespeare both wrote action stories. If you really look at what's happening in an action-driven story, it's just a bigger, broader container. And if we apply what I've been talking about here, it doesn't matter what the activity is in the outer world of your story, as long as it is allowing your character the opportunity to change and grow internally.
REA: Why do you think Hollywood responds to a script problem by hiring a new writer?
MARKS: Because there is no one there who really understands the deep dynamic of story structure. They keep bringing in writer after writer, and every writer that comes in has a different thematic perspective. So you end up with no thematic perspective at all.
REA: Why is there not more respect for the craft?
MARKS: The problem that a lot of very sophisticated screenwriters have with the whole idea of story structure is that they think someone is trying to come in and formulize the process, when it really couldn't be further from the truth. In any other art form, if you want to achieve a certain level of professionalism, you devote yourself to the study of theory. If you don't understand theory, how do you develop something?
REA: Do you think that's because of how new the film medium is?
MARKS: I think so. I have yet to encounter any resistance when I talk to screenwriters who have never worked with this kind of theory before. When they see how complimentary this is to their process and how it only helps them to define their own intentions and make creative choices based on a deep place, rather than an arbitrary place, writers are very enthusiastic. In fact, when I teach seminars in colleges, I have clients who call me three years later and tell me that in the entire time they were in school, I was the only person who talked to them about what the internal structure of a story looks like. As far as I know, there is no school in this country that teaches story analysis for screenwriting. One of my goals is to encourage a place like AFI or UCLA to open a whole course devoted to understanding what a script is, so that there are universal principles that can be applied.
REA: A common language.
MARKS: One of the things that writers hate today is that they have to go into a story meeting with 22 year olds who throw words around like "transformational arc" and they don't know what they're talking about. Or they use the word "plot" for anything that has to do with story. And it's not. There's plot, there's character and there's theme.
REA: Aren't there story analysts on studio staff?
MARKS: And where do they get their training? They're only as good as their experience. If I took the top person from every studio, in terms of story development and structure, and I sat down with them, we would have a feast. But instead of putting our knowledge together, it's like this huge puzzle, and everyone's carrying around a piece or two of it, and nobody sees the whole vision yet.
REA: It's intensely competitive.
MARKS: It is, and it breaks my heart. I think what makes a good analyst should be the ability to analyze, not who comes up with the best system.
REA: What do you think about the top tier screenwriting coaches and teachers on the market?
They all talk different languages, but when you really break down what all these
people are saying, there are more similarities than disparities. And that's
as it should be. In other words, if that weren't true, we would all be speaking
gibberish and the people out there would think no one knows what they're talking
about because everyone's conflicting everybody else. I always tell my clients
that I don't want anyone walking away becoming a Dara Marks screenwriter. I
tell them I'm going to give them some technique and that they can then incorporate
that with a little of Truby, a little of McKee and a little of Seger, and come
up with their own technique because that's what's going to make them a great
writer, not mimicking something someone else says.
Marks is in the middle of writing a book on The Inner Story techniques. Her
consulting fees run between $750 and $1200. Her regular analysis includes a
three act breakdown, 6 to 8 pages of notes and a phone consultation. That package
generally runs about $900. Her hourly rate is $100. She can be reached at (805)
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