How do TV writers write? They ‘break’ the story first.

October 31st, 2014 by

Entertainment Weekly has a sponsored piece of content called “A Day in the Life of a TV Executive Producer and Writer,” featuring Sarah Watson who works on the NBC TV series “Parenthood”. You can read it here. What I’d like to zero in on is this:

Parenthood Writers Room

Notice all those index cards? Watson explains them:

A story is a group effort before the writer goes off to work out the script. “We ‘break’ the story as a team. Break is a fancy word for outline. We talk it through scene by scene and beat by beat until we have a shape for an episode. On Parenthood we use cork boards and colored note cards to track the scenes.”

Index cards! With all the technology we have nowadays, perhaps these simple 3×5 inch cards are the one of the most important writing tools. And not just for TV. Back in June, I featured this interview with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, whose movie credits include Milk and J. Edgar. He is a big fan of index cards:

I was really interested to see the table Lance works on because I interviewed him a few years ago and we discussed our mutual affection for using index cards:

DLB: Then what I do is find the scenes that speak to that, and I put them on note cards. I have this table in my kitchen that’s of a certain size that I think is about two hours. And I start laying out these note cards and if they start to spill over the table, I know I’ve got to cut stuff. I keep doing and doing and doing it, going through it and through it and through it, combining things, telescoping time, combining characters if I have to until these cards fit on this table, then I think, Will this collection of cards communicate the reason for this film? And hopefully do so in a dramatic and entertaining way.

SM: It’s funny that with all the technology available, I talk to so many writers who still like to work with those three-by-five inch index cards. Like we need that tactile experience of working with those cards and seeing the story come into shape.

DLB: You can see it all laying out in front of you. And you’d have to have a massive computer screen to see the entire story. Plus there’s no program I know of, not yet at least, that allows you to take a fine tip Sharpie and scribble something in the corner of a note card that’s already crammed with ideas. It’s collage and art. I don’t know of a program that’s loose enough to accommodate the craft, because it’s still a craft, crafting a screenplay.

Ever since I spoke with Lance, I kept trying to imagine what “certain size” table he has that translates into a two hour movie. Well, there it is in the video. In fact at the 3:40 mark in the video, Lance flat out says about scenes he’s had to cut, “There’s not room. I don’t have any more room on that table.”

Index cards. Tables. Cork board. White boards. Whatever you do and however you do it, break your story in prep. I’m not saying it’s the only way to write a screenplay, but most pro writers I know approach the story-crafting process that way. And every TV writer does. So if you don’t outline your stories, now’s the time to give it a try. Bust out those index cards and break your story!

Movie Trailer: “Effie Gray”

October 31st, 2014 by

Written by Emma Thompson

A look at the mysterious relationship between Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his teenage bride Effie Gray.


Release Date: November 2014 (USA)

Great Scene: “Almost Famous”

October 31st, 2014 by

October is Great Scene month at Go Into The Story whereby we put a spotlight on notable movie scenes, then analyze and discuss them. Their structure, themes, character dynamics. Why do they work? What are their narrative elements that elevate them to greatness? Let’s face it: In a fundamental way, screenwriting is scene-writing, so the more we learn about this aspect of the craft, the better.

Today’s suggestion is by James Douglas: The 2000 movie Almost Famous, written by Cameron Crowe. IMDB plot summary:

A high-school boy is given the chance to write a story for Rolling Stone Magazine about an up-and-coming rock band as he accompanies it on their concert tour.

After a fight between band members and a raucous night partying, Russell (Billy Crudup) returns to the band’s bus and off they go, the mood somber…

James made this point about the scene: “The way that the group ‘heals’ without saying a single word is astounding, and Penny’s revelation to William is all the more potent because of it.” James is referring to this exchange between young William (Patrick Fugit) and Penny Lane (Kate Hudson):

William Miller: I have to go home.
Penny Lane: You are home.

The scene speaks to the power of music. Wonderful scene, awesome movie, and a great way to round out this month’s Great Scene series. Thanks for all of your suggestions!

To read all of the entries in the Great Scene archive, go here.

Great Character: Lorraine Warren (“The Conjuring”)

October 31st, 2014 by

The Great Character theme for the month: Supernatural. Today: Lorraine Warren from The Conjuring, written by Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes.

Before Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson addressed paranormal activity within the “reel world” of Ghostbusters, the ghostbusters in the real world were husband and wife Ed and Lorraine Warren. With approximately 10,000 supernatural cases to their credit, the work of demonologist Ed Warren and his clairvoyant wife Lorraine Warren has led to the formation of the New England Society for Psychic Research,their crafting of six non-fiction books and popular film adaptations: The Amityville Horror (1979), The Haunting in Connecticut (2009), Annabelle (2014) and the biggest hit of them all – The Conjuring (2013).

The Conjuring IMDB:

Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse.

The Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes screenplay, directed by horror film aficionado James Wan (Saw, Insidious) puts Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Young Adult) and Vera Farmiga (The Departed, Up in the Air) immediately up on the screen as Ed and Lorraine in the midst of the Annabelle doll case and the subsequent college lecture circuit that supplements their investigation services.

We also become privy to their roles as parents to a young daughter and the collection of terrifyingly tangible trinkets from their preternatural cases stored in a museum exhibition in their home. But even though Ed and Lorraine are partners in life and profession, they clearly appear driven by the desire to alleviate the fears and phobias of others.

LORRAINE WARREN: Something awful happened here Ed.

It’s this selfless service and commitment that sends them off to face the Perron family farmhouse haunting after a college presentation, endearing them to the family. Lorraine’s nonjudgmental understanding and motherly protective nurturing aids her in securing trust and cooperation from the Perron parents and their five young daughters.

While offering her emotional compassion to her clients, as well as unconditional love to her husband and daughter, Lorraine has two very different angles to her identity as a supernatural character. On the outside, Lorraine Warren has an easygoing, humble outlook on her mystic proclivities.

LORRAINE WARREN: A non-skeptic. That’s a pleasant change.

But on the inside, Lorraine’s gift for telepathic perception intensifies her involvement in tracking down spiritual entities in an often-overwhelming fashion. It is Lorraine who sees and experiences the past tense poltergeists of the Perron farm, from suicidal spirits to satanic spooks who inflicted murder in decades past.

Even when her own sanity could be in jeopardy, Lorraine never lets the burden of traumatic exorcisms and demonic possessions lessen her motivation to make others the beneficiaries of her afterlife communication skills.

LORRAINE WARREN: You said that God brought us together for a reason. Right? I’m pretty sure it’s not to write a book.

For her unrestricted maternal treatment of family and associates, her instinctive good nature and her strength to overcome the obstacles caused by paranormal problems – Lorraine Warren is a marvelous supernatural movie character, based on a very real woman.

A great character from a scary movie on Halloween day. Perfect!

Thank you, Jason, for this post. Please join us in comments to discuss The Conjuring.

You may follow Jason on Twitter: @A2Jason.

Daily Dialogue — October 31, 2014

October 31st, 2014 by

“My name is John Nash. I’m being held against my will. Someone contact the Department of Defense.”

A Beautiful Mind (2001), screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, book by Sylvia Nasar

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Madness.

Trivia: While this film is inspired by the life of John Nash, there were elements from his life that were deliberately omitted: 1) he was married twice, both to the same woman (Alicia Nash); 2) in the past, he had several affairs with both men and women; 3) he was arrested by the police by scandal; 4) He fathered a child out-of-wedlock in his twenties; 5) he believed that through his mental illness the extra-terrestrials spoke him, giving his advanced knowledge by means of cosmic connection with them; 6) he tried to renounce to his American nationality some times, in the belief that the USA government pursued him; and 7) he made numerous anti-Semitic comments during his period of extreme mental illness, most of which equated Jews with world Communism.

Dialogue On Dialogue: The whole fantasy characters dynamic in Nash’s life was a great creative choice by the filmmakers, helping to suck us into the nature of the Protagonist’s madness.

Story Concepts That Sell

October 30th, 2014 by

The foundation of any movie is the screenplay. The foundation of any screenplay is the concept. Therefore it stands to reason which story concept you develop and write as a spec script is a critical choice. And that is precisely why I created the upcoming webinar Story Concepts That Sell: To understand how movie industry insiders think, provide you with proven methods to generate story concepts, and develop analytical skills to help you zero in on the strongest ones for you to write.

Consider this quote:

“Most aspiring screenwriters simply don’t spend enough time choosing their concept. It’s by far the most common mistake I see in spec scripts. The writer has lost the race right from the gate. Months — sometimes years — are lost trying to elevate a film idea that by its nature probably had no hope of ever becoming a movie.”

– Terry Rossio (Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

I’ve been approached many times to do webinars. I chose this topic for my first one precisely because it is so important. I’ve spent thousands of hours generating story concepts and studying ways to engender that process, so I have a lot of content on the subject.

My webinar Story Concepts That Sell is scheduled for Monday, November 17, 2014 1:00PM PT/ 4:00PM ET.


  • A take on ‘high concept’ that actually helps your creative process
  • The singular importance of a ‘story conceit’
  • How to think in terms of genres, cross genres, and sub-genres
  • Hollywood’s golden rule of ‘similar, but different’
  • Keys to brainstorming story concepts
  • Why recycling is more than just an eco-friendly lifestyle
  • Gender-bending and genre-bending
  • A commonsense approach on how to write loglines
  • The two most powerful words in the story concept process
  • Why you need to take into account the international market
  • Many more tips on coming up with story concepts that can sell


  • Writers who want to write commercial movies
  • Writers who want to land representation with a manager and/or agent
  • Writers who need to understand the mindset of a Hollywood buyer
  • Writers who have never grasped how important story concepts are
  • Writers who struggle with writing loglines
  • Writers who want to learn how to approach the craft like a professional
  • Writers whose dream is to sell an original spec script
  • Writers who want to maximize their chances at breaking into Hollywood
  • Writers who are serious about succeeding as a screenwriter


The webinar is broadcast over the Internet with the live audio being delivered through your computer speakers or over your telephone. The presentation is displayed directly from the Presenter’s computer onto your computer screen.

The Q&A is managed through a chat-style submission system with questions being answered by the Presenter for the entire class to hear. In the event some questions are not answered during the live session, an e-mail with all questions and answers will be sent to all webinar attendees.

Participate Live or Watch Later

This webinar includes both access to the live webinar where you may interact with the presenter and the recorded, on-demand edition for your video library.  Each registration comes with access to the archived version of the program and the materials for one year. You do not have to attend the live event to get a recording of the presentation. In all webinars, no question goes unanswered. Attendees have the ability to chat with the instructor during the live event and ask questions. You will receive a copy of the webinar presentation in an e-mail that goes out one week after the live event. The answers to questions not covered in the live presentation will be included in this e-mail as well.

Another quote to consider:

“Ideas cost NOTHING and require ZERO risk. And yet, oddly, the LEAST amount of time’s usually spent in the idea stage before a small fortune is dumped on a whimsy that’s still half-baked… Ideas cost nothing yet have the potential to yield inexplicably long careers and happy lives.”

– Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Zak and Miri Make a Porno)

Yes, ideas and story concepts are that important. Shouldn’t you learn everything you can to give yourself an edge in relation to this critical screenwriting skill set?

Logline Critique

You also have the option to submit a logline from one of your original stories which I will critique, providing feedback on it to you.

Join me for my webinar Story Concepts That Sell — 90 minutes that could transform your creative process.

Go here to learn more and sign up. Date: Monday, November 17, 2014 1:00PM PT/ 4:00PM ET.

Reader Question: What to do if I’m good with plot, but weak with characters?

October 30th, 2014 by

Question via Twitter from @MahinWriter:

My issue: I can outline plot, but my character arcs feel weak. Got a blog post for that!?

It’s an important question and I appreciate you asking it, Michael, because with all the emphasis on screenplay structure in the online screenwriting universe — and by structure, most ‘gurus’ mean plot — there are a lot of script floating around that where writers hit the mark in terms of plot points and page count, but have created formulaic stories with little or no emotional resonance. And where should that emotional resonance come from? Why, characters, of course!

So the short answer is this: Spend more time with your characters! How to develop them? Try these techniques:

Questionnaire: A series of questions about your characters. Here is an example:

What is your name?

How old are you?

How would you describe your physical appearance?

How do you feel about the way you look?

Who are your parents?

Describe your relationship with your mother.

Describe your relationship with your father.

Who is the most important person in your life? Why?

Are you in love?

If so, describe your lover and your relationship with them.

If not, why not?

Describe what your soul-mate would be like.

Do you believe in God?

If so, describe your relationship with God.

If not, why not?

When did you stop believing in God?

Do you consider yourself to be an optimist or a pessimist? Why?

What do you do for a living?

If you like your job, explain why.

If not explain why not.

In ten years, where will you be and what will you be doing?

Please fill in the following…

My biggest strengths are…

My biggest weaknesses are…

I am most proud of…

I am most ashamed of…

I am most angry about…

And finally, be as honest as you can with this question…

I am most afraid of…

Biography: You act as historian and construct a life for your character, focusing on key relationships and events that may come into play in terms of their personality and events in your story.

Interview: Assume the role of a reporter, police detective, someone with a vested interest in getting information from a character, then go at them in the first person voice.

Sit-downs: This is the most ‘mystical’ of the techniques, but can also be one of the most valuable. Close the door, shut off your phone, sit at your computer, put your hands on your keyboard, close your eyes, and summon up an image of the character in question. If you can’t form a face, focus on one prominent feature — hands, hair, shoes, eyes. Then sit with them… and type. Don’t open your eyes, don’t edit what you’re typing, just write down the impressions, thoughts and feelings that come into your consciousness. Do this at least for a half-hour. Now what you end up with may be 90% misspelled crap, but even if just 10% of what you have on paper is gold, you’re ahead of the game. And in my experience, that 10% is often essential stuff, keys to the character. Do this exercise with all of your primary characters. You may choose to do it several times with your Protagonist and others over the course of your prep-writing as they evolve to check in with them.

Archetypes: At some point, it’s helpful to drill down and see what your main characters’ essential narrative function is, then you can ascribe to them one of the five primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster. But there are a whole host of other archetypes and you can consider each of your main characters in relation to them from a list like this one. For instance a Mentor who is a martyr is entirely different than a thief, an Attractor who is a virgin is different than a femme fatale.

Bottom line you are trying to do three things: (1) Go into your characters so you dig up key aspects of who they are. (2) Identify what their respective narrative functions are. (3) Understand how they work together as an ensemble especially in relation to the Protagonist’s metamorphosis journey.

Through that, hopefully the characters will come to life in your imagination and in your writing, it will be much more about them telling the story than you, and your plot will benefit from it.

Readers, do you have any other suggestions? Please head to comments and opine away!

Video: George Lucas on Star Wars and “psychological motifs in mythology”

October 30th, 2014 by

In a recent appearance with Charlie Rose, George Lucas got his theology on when talking about Star Wars. Check it out:


When I was trying to pitch Star Wars, I had an idea about psychological motifs that are in mythology. The great thing about mythology is it’s an oral medium, up until they learned how to write. But before that with Homer and everybody, they would just tell the stories… Passed down from father to son, father to son. And it told the people what the rules are. It’s the same thing as the Church, all the things we’ve got that make us a community, that we all believe in and share. What they used to go from a family to a tribe, and tribe to a city. So I said, “I wonder if people still think the way they thought then?” I think I proved they do.

It wasn’t until Freud came along that people realized that, “Oh, these are psychological motifs that have been around for a long time.” And they’re just as strong today.

What’s a hero. What’s friendship. What’s sacrificing yourself for something larger. They’re all very basic things. Well, why make a movie about that, it’s very obvious… but it’s actually not. Unless you have somebody tell you every generation this is what our country believes in. This is what we believe in. With Star Wars, the religion and everything was taken and put into a form that was easy for everybody to accept… It went everywhere in the world. Because they could say, “Oh, the things I believe in are the same as that.”

Most people in the world believe exactly the same thing. They share the same beliefs. Why do we think the way we think, why do we do what we do, why do we form our societies the way we do. It’s something I did when I was about eight years old, she was putting me to bed. I asked her a question. I said, “Mom, if there’s only one God, why are there so many religions?” And it’s a question that’s fascinated me ever since. If you really look at it and say, “What’s the difference between a Shia and Sunni? What’s the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant? They aren’t any different. We all believe in the Jewish God. But what about the Jewish God and the gods that came before? Buddhism is a little bit different, but in the end, everybody expresses it a little different, but basically it’s, “Don’t kill people” and “Be compassionate and love people.” That’s basically what Star Wars is.

Sounds like the Jedi-In-Chief would like my series Theology of Screenwriting.

Beyond the surprising connections Lucas draws between Star Wars and theology, there are three big takeaways from his comments:

* Universality: Stories that traffic in universal themes are more likely to resonate with big audiences. Or depending upon the theme, connect deeply with a small, but specific group.

* Psychological motifs: This is so much up my alley, what I teach, how I write because at the end of the day, while we want interesting plots with twists and turns, I am convinced what really compels us to respond to a movie are the characters and their psychological lives. We can identify with the characters and that sucks us into the story through their transformation-journeys.

* Mythology: Lucas sounds very much like Joseph Campbell in drawing the historical connection between stories passed on from generation to generation. Indeed, how it is incumbent upon each generation to come up with their own stories that will almost inevitably use mythological themes as part and parcel of their narratives.

Hopefully the new batch of Star Wars movies will find a healthy balance between technology and eye candy, and universality, mythology and psychological motifs to give each movie depth and emotional meaning.

HT to Indiewire for the link to the interview.

Movie Trailer: “Focus”

October 30th, 2014 by

Written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

A veteran grifter takes a young, attractive woman under his wing, but things get complicated when they become romantically involved.


Release Date: 27 February 2015 (USA)

Great Scene: “Local Hero”

October 30th, 2014 by

October is Great Scene month at Go Into The Story whereby we put a spotlight on notable movie scenes, then analyze and discuss them. Their structure, themes, character dynamics. Why do they work? What are their narrative elements that elevate them to greatness? Let’s face it: In a fundamental way, screenwriting is scene-writing, so the more we learn about this aspect of the craft, the better.

Today: The 1983 movie Local Hero, written by Bill Forsyth. IMDB plot summary:

An American oil company sends a man to Scotland to buy up an entire village where they want to build a refinery. But things don’t go as expected.

His business responsibilities over, Mac (Peter Riegert) sets off to leave Ferness and return home to Houston.

Local Hero may not, at first glance, appear to be a Hero’s Journey, but it most certainly is. Mac departs from his Ordinary World (Houston), then immerses himself in an Extraordinary World (Ferness). There he meets all sorts of new faces, new customs, and new ways of looking at life. He is transformed and we can see as much when he enters his apartment back ‘home’ in Houston. I say ‘home’ because it feels foreign to him. Note how he sets out artifacts from Scotland — sea shells, driftwood, photos — to try and make himself feel more comfortable. But then he steps out onto the balcony, his reverie swallowed up by the ambient noise of the city.

Then that final shot: The little town of Ferness. And the phone in the phone booth rings… and rings… and rings…

Sometimes, like Dorothy, the hero goes away, then returns home with a new appreciation for their Old World. Sometimes, like Mac, the hero returns and has been so influenced by their experiences, they cannot feel at home in their old digs. In both cases, the hero has been transformed.

To read all of the entries in the Great Scene archive, go here.

If you have an idea for this Great Scene series, check out the responses people have made so far here. If you have a different scene in mind you think would be worthy of analysis, please post it there or in comments for this post. Thanks!