Jan Janroy aka Jalal Jonroy
The following are from notes the author used
in conjunction with
- while coaching graduates for their final thesis films at Graduate Department
Film & Television: Tisch School of the Arts at NYU-
New York University.
Hollywood actors Persian American Shiva Rose (Layla)
& David Moscow (David) in
Aristotle 384-322 BCE, in his seminal treatise
'Poetics or Poetica' concluded there are seven golden rules of
successful story telling. These rules or principles in his days pertained to
ancient Greek theatre. Incredibly, today the same seven elements are essential
to writing successful film screenplays. Whenever I asked film graduates at NYU
if they could guess the seven principal elements of good story telling, they
would between them quickly answer correctly the following six elements, which
Aristotle prioritized as:
(Production Design/Art Direction)
(Special Effects- SFX.)
But only very
few would eventually guess the seventh (the third) essential element '????'
It is: the 'Idea(s)'
or the 'Theme(s.)' Why bother? What is the story all about?
the 'Idea' as the third most important among his seven principal elements of
good story telling.
How many films
nowadays have lasting, worthwhile ideas relevant to our world, lives, troubles,
nightmares, dreams, hopes, loves, joys and pains?
It seems too
many Hollywood films start backwards:
or Fantasy ideas appealing to impressionable kids
7. Character &
Sadly, too many
hyped up, mega-star films seem to be devoid of any compelling, relevant ideas.
Rose) at Mosque awaiting the Imam in
David & Layla
If you wish to
read Aristotle's Poetics, be warned that it is written in such an enigmatic and
philosophical manner that it may take you several patient readings to fish out
his seven golden elements of story telling. Reading the Poetics may remind you
of the saying - "It all sounds Greek to me!" Do not expect to read a "How To-
Idiot's Guide To Good Story Telling."
is the Idea?
'Nothing is new
under the sun."
So goes a Latin
proverb. This is probably true. There are only a limited number of basic myths
and archetype stories told over and over. Still the same 'basic stories' can be
retold again with new twists or in fresh, original ways. Layla wa Majnoon,
a 7th C. Arabian, tragic love story is essentially the same as the
older Iranian poem of Shirin O Farhad and the same as the much later
Shakespeare's 16th C. Romeo & Juliet.
Nezami (1141-1209) the greatest Persian romantic poet complained, "How could
I translate a love story set in arid Arabian deserts? When his patron Shah
offered more gifts, he agreed on the condition he reset Layla wa Majnoon
in the colorful and magical mountains of Iranian Kurdistan - Nezami's mother was
Kurdish - thereby rendering the tragic story to be more colorful and poetic.)
Ask: Is the
story worth telling or re-telling? Is it written (re-written) in a fresh,
original, meaningful, enlightening, and relevant manner? Or, at the very least,
is the story compelling and memorably entertaining? Otherwise, why bother
yourself, let alone everyone else!
Rose) calming David (David Moscow) at the Mosque in
Character, Pictures/Movements (Movies!)
"Sure, a story
should have a beginning, a middle and an ending, but not necessarily in that
French auteur write/director, one of the pioneers of the French Nouvelle Vague-
1958 to 1964.
placed 'Plot' as number one above 'Character'. In practice, experienced writers
would agree that Plot and Character are, so to speak, the two sides of the same
story or a plot idea comes to a writer first, and then the writer imagines,
selects and develops characters to fill out and drive the plot.
Other times in
a writer's imagination, active characters start to weave their plots. Some call
these scripts, 'character-driven' plots. In fact any good plot needs appropriate
strong or unusual characters to drive it. But in Hollywood, a character-driven
screenplay is often a trendy producers' parlance for promoting 'star-driven
Character or Plot comes first, the writer has to construct the plot and shape
the characters into an organic, believable whole. The lines between Plot and
Character become blurred. It matters little whether 'Plot' or 'Character' is the
first most paramount element.
It is more
meaningful to ask:
Is the story
revealed in an engaging, moving (movies!) cinematic, active way as opposed to a
boring, linear, and passive, expository fashion?
Is it a well
paced, page turner from page one, or at least from page 5 to 15, onwards to the
"A Picture is
worth a thousand words."
- of silent visuals - is more powerful than any words. Is the screenplay
visually engaging? Is it dramatized with tension and conflict? Is it
suspenseful, leaving enough gaps, anticipations, reversals, surprises and
questions for the audience to ponder and to get involved with, wanting to
connect the dots?
Arcs & Whose Point(s) of View(s)?
a. Are the
key characters well drawn out, developed and believable- individual
characterizations, behaviors, likes and dislikes, with matching specific,
authentic, individual voice/dialog for each of the characters?
b. Are the
characters' behaviors authentic to their backgrounds and ethnicities? (In the
Kit Runner film, anyone familiar with Afghani and Middle East cultures would
find that the young lead's behavior towards his dad when he gets a heart attack
(an excellent actor) and between the young groom and his new bride did not seem
Do the key characters change/develop believably in the story? The arc of
the key characters. Unlike a novel, a two hour screenplay does not permit for
side or stock characters to also have arcs! ("I wish I knew what is
the f-ing arc of my character!?" An ironic dialog from The Sopranos.)
Rose) interrogated by her potential Jewish in-laws in
David & Layla
Whose point of
view? Hamlet, like Gilgamesh, has one predominant character's
point of view- that of Hamlet or King Gilgamesh. David & Layla, like
Romeo and Juliet, has two points of views- those of David & Layla!
Monsoon Wedding has several (six!) points of views/subplots- all held
together around the lovely and accelerating preparations leading to the ending
glorious monsoon wedding.
audience gradually feel for and root for the lead and support roles, wishing
them to succeed?
In drama, does
the writer, by contrast, subtly make the audience hate the antagonists, or at
least wishing them to fail?
Who and How?
louder than words."
Are the characters revealed the ideal (cinematic) way: that is more through
behavior and action rather than dialog? Classic silent movies, such as
starring the phenomenal Lillian Gish, told convincing,
emotionally-engaging stories without any dialog, using only a few Title Cards.
Do the lead
characters take initiative and engage in bold (irreversible!) actions rather
than stay passive or just react? Active characters who take risks cause the
enticing incident, plot points, escalating crisis...They weave the plot and drive
the story forward.
Is the dialog
concise, appropriate, indirect, authentic, and subtle (not expository)? The best
dialog is often counterpoint to the characters' behaviors and actions. Real
characters often 'lie', especially when under pressure. Great dialog belie
subtext and hidden agenda which are often betrayed and signaled by character's
behavior and body language.
dialog subtly and economically advance the story and/or reveal and develop
should show rather than tell (expose.) And it absolutely must not show and tell
at the same time!
Here is a
In a Lonely Place (1950), between the
admiring girl and the Humphrey Bogart writer character:
I thought actors wrote their own dialog?
(Bogart): No! Only when they become stars!
Hollywood stars like Tom Hanks insist on re-writing their dialog to make them
look extra noble, heroic, sympathetic, sweet and cute. This might explain his
too syrupy roles in such films as You've Got Mail and Cast Away -
the first a full feature commercial for AOL, and the second for FedEx. (These
companies' substantial funding of those films was revealed later.)
David & Layla
Structure: Enticing Incident, Conflict, Plot Points, Pace, Style/Genre,
character in the story absolutely necessary to tell the story? Is He/She (or
It?) well used to advance the story?
Is it a tight,
lean screenplay? Is every scene necessary to tell the story?
scene and action advance the story and/or reveal and develop characters?
scene opens/starts part way through? The audience can guess/imagine what has
writer must ruthlessly cut out unnecessary personal/favorite scenes and cute
genre, is the story a believable, well-woven organic whole? Principal story
genres/kinds are: drama, comedy, farce/satire, thriller, action adventure,
science fiction, epic... Or, mixed genres- drama/satire, as in some Altman and
Almodovar films and in David & Layla.
Note the margin
for "Suspension of Disbelief" is much wider in comedy and satire than in drama.
What maybe unbelievable in drama would not only be fine but desirable and
necessary, in comedy, satire and farce! (It is astonishing how even some film
critics compare apples with oranges- when they blithely critique a mixed-genres
romantic comedy drama like David & Layla or Monsoon Wedding as if these
were purely single genre serious drama!)
audience get emotionally involved with, identify and care about, or at the very
least be fascinated, engaged and entertained by the principal characters and
Persian American Actress Shiva Rose (Layla) starring
David & Layla, an independent film
written & directed by
Jan Janroy (next to Shiva) at New York Makor Jewish Culture Center
essential thing for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector.
This is the writer's radar."
he re-wrote the ending of his 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' thirty-eight
times until he was content.
genre, are the characters and their stories credible?
Is the ending
Is the ending
It matters not
if the end is happy, sad, thought-provoking, open-ended, enigmatic or tragic,
perhaps inducing catharsis as in Greek tragedies.
Most find the
current 'No Country for Old Men' to be brilliant filmmaking and superb acting.
But the ending is 'unsatisfying' for most audiences. It may appeal to some film
critics and film buffs looking for a novel or a high brow 'film festival'
In the end, the
audience expects and deserves a satisfying end!
Jan Janroy aka
Jalal Jonroy, New York.
reading: 1. Playwriting (1961) by
Bernard Grebanier, 2.
Art of Dramatic Writing (1972) by Lajos Egri, 3.
Screenwriting 101 (1999) by Neill
D. Hicks, 4.
Story (1997) by Robert
Mckee, and dozens of 'How To' formulae Hollywood books by authors such as
Syd Field most of whom have not yet written a compelling screenplay. (The most
widely translated are Syd Field books- translated even in the Middle East under
'Saeed Feld' or 'Said Feld'!)
David & Layla
opens in New
York during Valentine on February, 15th, 2008, in Chicago, February
22, and in San Francisco, March 7th, followed by Q&A sessions with
Shiva Rose and Jan Janroy.
Info at movie
... Payvand News - 01/16/08 ... --