Reader Question: Is it possible to have a Protagonist who doesn’t have a backstory?

July 31st, 2014 by

Question via email from Faizan (Mumbai, India):

Is it possible for a protagonist not to have a back story?

The first thing that comes to mind is the so-called “Dollars Trilogy” of ‘spaghetti Westerns’: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). In those movies, Clint Eastwood plays the same character and has come to be known as The Man With No Name. He has such a mysterious, shrouded personal history, even his name is nonexistent. In each movie, Eastwood’s character shows up as a stranger and goes through the entire story without revealing much, if anything, about his life leading up to FADE IN.

Clint Eastwood Man With No Name

A contemporary example is the 2011 movie Drive. Here is the IMDB plot summary: “A mysterious Hollywood stuntman, mechanic and getaway driver lands himself in trouble when he helps out his neighbor.” The Protagonist (Ryan Gosling) is known only as Driver (that’s his character designation, no one in the story calls him that, rather his name never even comes up as a subject). We learn some key bits about Driver’s past through a few events, but still very little in the way of backstory.

So the short answer to your question is yes, it is possible for the Protagonist of a movie not to have a backstory. That is, a backstory that is unknown to the script reader and movie audience.

However the character, like all characters in a screenplay, exists within their story universe. Twenty four hours per day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days per year, their whole lives. As such each character in a story has his or her particular personal history. In their own way, they have lived their lives as fully and complex as you or me.

But I like to draw a distinction between personal history, which is everything that has happened to a character in their life, and backstory. Here’s how I define that:

Backstory is comprised of specific events and dynamics in a character’s past that play directly to the experience of the character in the Present and set into motion the culminating events of their Future.

I am talking about the Present and Future of the story. Personal history is general. Backstory are those distinct narrative elements that have a direct influence on the physical and psychological journey of the characters in a story.

Some examples of backstory:

  • The Shawshank Redemption: Andy Dufresne was a successful banker who was found guilty of murdering his wife and her lover.
  • Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope: Luke Skywalker’s father was a Jedi knight murdered by Darth Vader, resulting in Luke living with his aunt and uncle.
  • Casablanca: Rick Blaine, an American ex-patriot, fell in love with Ilse Lund, only to be jilted by her when he left Paris to flee the German army.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana Jones was colleagues with Abner Ravenwood until Indy broke up with his daughter Marion.
  • Rear Window: Jeff Jefferies is a world traveling photographer who broke his leg and is stuck in his apartment in a wheelchair.
  • The Shining: Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic who was fired as a teacher due to his violent temper, moves his family to a remote hotel with a ghostly past.
  • Aliens: Ellen Ripley survived a battle against a deadly alien only to discover she has returned to Earth decades after her daughter has died.
  • Unforgiven: William Munny was once a vicious killer, but after marrying and becoming a father, gave up drinking and gun-fighting.

Reviewing this list, it is easy to see how the specific elements of each Protagonist’s backstory tie directly to the story’s Present. They also carve possible paths toward the future — whether it’s in Unforgiven and Munny’s violent capabilities, Aliens and Ripley’s loss as a mother, or Rear Window and Jeff’s need for adventure.

I get into this subject in great detail in my Core VIII: Time class, but let me just say this here: In a screenplay, time is not static, rather it is kinetic. We write a script in present tense, unlike most novels and short stories. Why? To convey the experience of the story happening in the moment. Therefore the influence of a character’s backstory means one way we can think about screenplay time is Present-Past: There is an inextricable link to what’s happening now, and key events and dynamics in the characters’ past. There is also, as I’ve suggested, Present-Future, but that’s a whole other area of consideration. Want to learn more? Take my Time class.

So can you tell a story where a script reader isn’t privy to the backstory of a Protagonist character? Yes, but the fact is, that character will have a backstory. Even if you don’t reveal it, you – the writer – need to know it. Of course, most Protagonists as well as other characters have backstories that do get revealed, the specific elements of their personal history that are directly relevant to the unfolding of the overall story, which is all the more reason that ‘stuff’ needs to emerge in the prep and page-writing process.

Let me close my comments by noting this: I hope the subtext of the question isn’t, “Gee, digging into a Protagonist backstory is really hard work. I wonder if I can just wing it and not give him/her any specific details, and just start writing, and forget all that jazz.”

Sure, a writer can do that. And the resulting script will almost certainly end up in the recycling bin.

In almost every movie, the Protagonist is the single most important character. Their wants, needs, conscious goals, unconscious goals, fears, desires, and backstories shape and influence virtually every aspect of a story. Generally their beginning psychological state implies where they need to go on their journey, what I call the narrative imperative. You don’t want to avoid digging into the Protagonist’s life-story, rather you should embrace it because that’s where the gold is, the backbone of your narrative, the arc of the character’s metamorphosis, the nature of relationships to other characters. The deeper you dig into their personal history, the more they reveal their personality, their voice, their psyche, and all the rest.

In a way, a Protagonist’s backstory might be the single most important area of research and discovery in getting in touch with and unearthing the story.

My advice: Engage that character. Ask him/her questions. Interview them. Encourage them to talk through sit-downs or monologues. Delve into their past by writing a biography. They want you to tell their story. Reach out to them. Reach into them. The heart, soul, blood and guts of your story lie within your characters… especially the Protagonist.

After you’ve found out what you can about the Protagonist and other characters, what you choose to reveal of their backstory is up to you as a writer. They can be The Character With No Name. But in order to know your story well enough to tell it in a compelling, entertaining way, the bottom line is even if you keep the script reader in the dark… you need to know that shit.

Readers, what are your thoughts on this question? Head to comments, curious to see your reactions and thoughts.

Reader Question: For great films, should I watch them or read script first?

July 30th, 2014 by

Question via Twitter from @JoshHoltCity

Scott, if I’m fortunate/unfortunate enough to have never seen a number of great films, should I read or watch first?

First off, you are both fortunate and unfortunate not to have seen a “number of great films.” Unfortunate because you do not have the collective experience — yet — of having seen all those great cinematic stories to have fed your mind, body and soul. Besides on a practical level, you absolutely need to watch as many movies as you can, especially great ones, because every conversation about story development in Hollywood references movies over and over and over again. A studio executive trying to make a point says, “Like that scene with the horse head in The Godfather,” instead of nodding your head limply because you haven’t seen the film, much better to be able to get the reference because you have screened it.

That said, you are fortunate because you have virgin eyes. My God, the thought of seeing some of my favorite movies for the very first time: The Apartment, To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. Strangelove, Casablanca, Annie Hall, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Alien, Psycho, The Exorcist, Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources, Tampopo, Fanny and Alexander, Wings of Desire and on and on…

You have a great gift: You get to experience these classics and more for the first time. In that respect, I envy you.

Advice: Print out the IMDB Top 250 list and make it your goal to watch every single one of those movies. That may be the most important thing you do as a budding screenwriter and filmmaker. There is a Gestalt type of learning you can attain in no other way than immersing yourself in a bunch of movies.

Now to your actual question: Read the script or watch the movie first? I am curious what readers will say, but if we are talking great movies like Citizen Kane, The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lawrence of Arabia, I’d say watch the movie first.

You want to take in that whole film experience knowing as little as possible about the story so you can be swept up in the narrative. On your first screening of a great film, you don’t want to be sitting there comparing the movie to a script and going deep into story analysis, rather you should allow yourself the chance to become immersed in that universe.

After you see the movie, then you can bust out the script and re-watch it, comparing script to screen. By the way, that’s a great exercise.

I will say there are a bunch of movies I’ve seen after reading the script, but I’m nearly three decades into this. It’s hard for me to watch movies without having one track of my mind in analysis mode. So knowing the story before I watch a movie isn’t such a big deal to me. With certain exceptions, of course, movies I just absolutely have to watch knowing as little as possible about the story in advance.

But you’re young! You still deserve the chance to experience the awe and wonder of seeing movies fresh.

So my bottom line advice is watch the movies first. Then read the scripts.

Readers, what do you say? I suspect most of you will agree with me, but maybe not. I’d be especially curious to hear from folks who work in Hollywood development circles whose job requires them to read scripts before the movies get produced. How do you deal with that? Do you find that hinders your experience of watching a movie? Or not?

See you in comments for your thoughts.

And Josh, enjoy the classics!

Reader Question: Are writers included in “nuisance lawsuits”?

July 21st, 2014 by

Reader Question from Eric Harris:

You always hear about movie studios getting sued for films like Liar Liar, Terminator from some person that claims they had a similar idea…. in these nuisance suits, in the writer’s deal….are the writer’s protected from this? Do they sue the studio/production co. or the writer?

Funny you should ask that because

The creators of web series about a foul-mouthed teddy bear with a penchant for drinking, smoking and prostitutes has filed a copyright infringement suit against Seth MacFarlane, Universal Pictures and the producers of Ted, the 2012 film about a foul-mouthed teddy bear with a penchant for drinking, smoking and prostitutes. Bengal Mangle Productions claims that Ted “is an unlawful copy” of its own animated teddy, who was featured in two different web series, Charlie The Abusive Teddy and Acting School Academy. The suit (read it here), filed today in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, states that those web series aired in 2009 and 2010 on You Tube, and other streaming websites.

“Both Charlie and Ted reside in a substantially similar environment, including that both Charlie and Ted spend a significant amount of time sitting on a living room couch with a beer and/or cigarette in hand,” the suit claims. “Charlie and Ted each have a substantially similar persona, verbal tone, verbal delivery, dialogue, and attitude.”

I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll leave expert opinions on the matter to those who may practice law (feel free to weigh in), however let’s use this as an opportunity to talk about what is known in the business as nuisance lawsuits. Basically these refer to any lawsuits brought by people against media companies or even individual, such as a celebrity, that presumably have little to no merit. As far as TV and movies go, they are as much a part of the Hollywood terrain as palm trees.

I remember when I had an office on the Universal Studios lot talking with someone there in legal affairs who told me that every single movie Steven Spielberg had been involved in had been the subject of a nuisance lawsuit.

Why do these lawsuits happen? Several reasons.

First of all, the world is filled with greedy bastards.

Second, there are a lot of people coming up with ideas for movies and TV series. My rough estimate of how many: A zillion. With that many folks generating that many story concepts, it’s inevitable that someone is going to have an idea similar to any movie or TV series that gets produced.

I suppose there have been attempts to sue studios by some lunkheads who had a similar idea flit through their dome while plunked on their Barcolounger, yet never made an effort to get said idea to anyone in Hollywood, but more typically what happens is the people behind these lawsuits actually have some semblance of credibility that their concept may have intersected with the company in question.

Sometimes these lawsuits trace a path between a script that got submitted to an agency before a similar project was put into development. Whether the agency did or did not have an actual interface with the other project is almost irrelevant. The Hollywood acquisition and development system is a tight community, so it’s assumed that everybody knows everybody’s business. Idea enters the system in Burbank, the thinking is it must have made its way over to Culver City. No actual proof, mind you, but enough for gold diggers to sue, hoping to shake some coin from Hollywood’s coffers.

That said, I have seen reports where there are demonstrable points of connection, for example, where a writer pitched a project to a production company, then that company went on to make a movie at least somewhat similar to the original pitch. A lawsuit like that may have more legitimacy than most.

Then there are cases like Ted, where the plaintiffs have a public venue — a web series — as proof of their Intellectual Property. In effect, the Internet is a global distribution network for ideas. Combine that with the fact that Hollywood voraciously searches the darkest corners of social media to find The Next Big Thing, it is not out of the question that a certain amount of creative… er… borrowing might occur.

So this whole area of determining the source of creative inspiration is an ooey gooey thing where there can be legitimate cases of outright IP theft, but more often than not, the suits are based on little more than greed and the good ol’ American dream of squeezing dollars from profiteering corporations.

The odd thing is, we see announcements about the issuance of nuisance lawsuits, but hardly ever read anything further about them. My guess is most cases get dismissed, but I’m sure studios will sometimes pay off a plaintiff just to get them to drop the suit. Indeed, I’ll bet that’s a line item in each studio’s annual budget. Curious as to what the legal term for those funds would be…

Anyway back to your original question, Eric, as the movie Ted demonstrates, the writer can be subject to a lawsuit. That seems odd to me because in the U.S., if a writer sells an original project to a studio, ownership of the copyright transfers to them. In effect, the buyer becomes the “author”. In that case, I’m not sure about actual legal liability on the part of the writer. Again, any legal eagles out there, please chime in with your expertise.

Of more relevance to writers relative to the subject:

* Nuisance lawsuits are making it harder and harder for outsiders to get material read by Hollywood buyers. To my knowledge, no studio and most agencies refuse to consider unsolicited material. Many managers and producers are more open to queries, but will often have you sign some sort of submission waiver release form. Bottom line: Frivolous lawsuits suck because they make it harder for aspiring writers to break into the business.

* If you bring a lawsuit against a studio, whether justified or not, it’s a pretty good bet you’ll have a hard time working in the business again… that is until you write a killer spec script which everyone wants in which case all is forgiven.

* A more pressing concern is the blurry area of sweepstakes pitching wherein multiple writers pitch their takes on one project. In theory, the studio or prod co could aggregate their favorite talking points from the round of pitches, then assign the project to a writer including those notes as being of their own inspiration. This can eventually lead to each of the sweepstakes pitchers sitting in a movie theater, looking at this bit or that which seems awfully similar to what they pitched… and there’s literally nothing the writer can do about it. If challenged, the studio can always say, “We had that idea before you pitched it to us.” Besides the writer doesn’t want to get on the bad side of a potential employer by getting all pissy with them.. This reality is just something that is part of the Open Writing Assignment circus. It’s your choice to enter the big tent… or stay outside.

Readers, what thoughts do you have on this matter? I look forward to any insight you may have on the subject.

Reader Question: What about the Protagonist and the inciting incident?

July 16th, 2014 by

Question from @SB_Boxing:

hi Scott. Should a protagonist always initiate the inciting incident or can they be reactive to it?

Let me approach this question with two considerations in mind.

First, with a few caveats [see note at end of post], almost every story by definition is going to have this dynamic in place: The Protagonist(s) will begin in the Old World / Ordinary World. That is, we meet the Protagonist in the context of the life they have been living up to the point of FADE IN. This is only natural. We need to get to know this key character in their ‘natural habitat’ in order to have a baseline against which to measure everything else that happens. Their personal metamorphosis, changes in key relationships, the contrast in events that transpire in the New World, and so forth.

To that point of the New World, inevitably something happens in the first act / movement / stage of the story that propels the Protagonist out of their Old World.

This brings us to the second consideration: That ‘something happens’ event has a lot of names. Joseph Campbell calls it the Call To Adventure. Screenwriting gurus call it Inciting Incident. I even have a name for it: The Hook because this event both hooks into the plot and gives it a twist, and hooks the reader’s attention. Ah, that’s interesting. What’s going to happen now?

It doesn’t matter what you call it, just that you understand something has to happen. An external force that intrudes in the Protagonist’s life. A Herald who arrives with an invitation. A sudden realization the Protagonist makes to leave their Old Life behind.

Something. Happens. In my view, that is the essence of an inciting incident.

As to the specifics of your question, @SB_Boxing, frankly I think more often than not, the Protagonist does not initiate this event, rather it happens to them, it comes at them. Some examples:

* Casablanca: Rick is given the letters of transit by Ugarte.

* The Matrix: First Trinity, then Morpheus reach out to Neo about him being in danger.

* The Silence of the Lambs: At the end of Clarice’s startling initial interaction with Lecter, set into motion by her FBI chief Crawford, Lecter gives her a clue bound up in a riddle.

* Raiders of the Lost Ark: Two Army Intelligence officers seeks Indy’s help with some messages they have intercepted from the Nazis about possibly locating the Ark of the Covenant.

* Bridesmaids: Lillian asks Annie to be her Maid of Honor.

Each of these Calls requires a response: In Casablanca after Ugarte is shot, Rick keeps the letters for future use. In Matrix, Neo refuses to heed Trinity and Morpheus, ending up being taken captive by Agent Smith and his cronies. In Lambs, Clarice unravels the riddle Lecter gave her which sets her onto the case. In Raiders, Indy enthusiastically agrees to pursue finding the Ark of the Covenant. In Bridesmaids, Annie agrees to be the Maid of Honor.

This dynamic, whereby Fate intervenes in the ordinary life of the Protagonist, is a common one in movies. As demonstrated with these examples, we see that responses can vary. Campbell talks about the Reluctant Hero, and as with Neo in The Matrix, this is a familiar theme, and understandably so from a writing standpoint as this take gives the Protagonist more room to grow. On the other hand, some Protagonists are ready to rock and roll, whether they are conscious of their innate desire to change or not, and that can bring its own unique energy to a story’s setup.

Sometimes, however, the Protagonist helps to create the circumstances of the inciting incident:

* The Wizard of Oz: After Miss Gulch takes Toto, who then escapes, Dorothy and her dog run away from home.

* The Apartment: Busted by Sheldrake, Baxter agrees to give the key to his apartment to his boss for Sheldrake’s illicit trysts.

* Up: Carl’s unfortunate interaction with the construction crew leads to him being evicted from his house.

* Her: Unhappy over his impending divorce, Theodore purchases a talking operating system with artificial intelligence named Samantha.

In each of these cases, the Protagonist either initiates or is at least implicated in the unfolding of the inciting incident.

So the direct answer to your question, @SB_Boxing, is this: There is no “always”. Not to the issue of the inciting incident. Not to anything involved with crafting a story. As writers, we should feel completely free to follow our stories wherever they take us. Screenwriting gurus who say things like “Never” or “Always” are more than likely armed with some sort of formula they want to sell you. And formulas almost inevitably lead to formulaic writing. And formulaic writing leads to virtual slush piles.

Forms, on the other hand, are different. For decades, movie narratives have had patterns, tropes, memes, themes, dynamics. Three act structure. The Hero’s Journey. Metamorphosis. Archetypes.

However these are tools, not rules.

They should inform our creative process, not inhibit it so that we feel like we are engaged in little more than paint-by-numbers storytelling.

Beyond that, the much more interesting question for a writer to ask is this:

Why does this story have to happen to this character at this time?

Consider your Protagonist. Their state of Disunity at the beginning of the story. They need to change. The Story Universe recognizes this. And it’s the Story Universe which makes that critical something happen event occur in the middle of what we call Act One.

Ponder the idea that your Protagonist has a Destiny, what I call their Narrative Imperative. Their Disunity state implies a Unity state, something 90% of mainstream Hollywood movies have in place as part of the resolution to the Protagonist’s journey.

Bottom line: Go into the story and find the animals. And those animals ought not be constrained by “Always” and “Never”. Stories are organic. Formulas kill 99% of scripts that funnel into Hollywood before they get past the first script reader’s iPad.

Your Protagonist may initiate the inciting incident. They may inadvertently set it into motion. The call may tumble upon them out of the blue. They may be forced into their journey. They may go willingly. They may leap into it.

Any of these options — and many, many  more — is possible.

Immerse yourself in your Protagonist and your Story Universe, keep asking questions and see where they lead you.

Find the heart and soul of your story…

And for heaven’s sake, stay away from formulas.

Caveats: Stories do not need to proceed in a linear fashion, going from Beginning to Middle to End. Granted, most mainstream movies do, but filmmakers can:

* Tell the story backward (see Memento)

* Craft the story in a nonlinear fashion (see Pulp Fiction)

* Omit the middle (see Blue Valentine)

However even if you tell a story with a nontraditional narrative structure, let’s say, you start at the end, in what constitutes the first 10-15 minutes of your movie, something will happen. It may not technically be the Call To Adventure — that may emerge later in the story when the narrative gets around to the beginning — but it will function as a hook that twists the plot and incites a reader’s interest in the plot — hopefully.

Readers, what thoughts do you have? Please head to comments to share them.

Reader Question: How do you decide between managers?

July 15th, 2014 by

Question from Eric Harris:

How do you decide between managers?–owner of a medium firm vs. manager working for a bigger firm (who might jump to a different firm since they are not the owner)?

What is life like working with one and what should you expect to make the most of it. I’ve worked with one before, but they went on to just producing.

I guess you could call me Old School in that I’ve never had a manager, only agents and lawyers, so I’ll open up the question to GITS readers who have confronted a situation whereby they had to choose between managers.

That said, I know a lot of managers and writers, and have discussed this topic several times, so let me offer up a few observations.

Let’s start with your second question because your understanding of what you should expect from a working relationship with a manager will be a strong consideration should you be in the position where you are trying to choose between two or more of them for representation.

What does a manager do?

* Goals: A good manager will want to hear what your goals are, provide initial feedback, then review those goals from time to time per the contours of your career.

* Strategy: It’s great to have goals, but how do you get there? A good manager will map out a plan, short term to long term. Again that is likely to change depending upon your circumstances and you should expect your manager to come up with creative strategies in response to them.

* Voice: You have talent, you have creativity, but a manager can help you develop your voice. The relationship varies from manager to writer, but often the manager is intimately involved in a writer’s process, everything from treatments and outlines, script pages and revisions.

* Meetings: One of the manager’s most fundamental responsibilities is to get you into rooms with people who matter. Producers, directors, actors, studio executives.

So bare minimum, I would suggest you bring up each of these subjects, but I would be surprised if a manager didn’t do so voluntarily as these are key aspects of their gig.

I would also ask about what their expectations are of you. In truth, at least some, and perhaps many of the gigs you get will derive from your own efforts. A manager can help you with strategy, develop your scripts and get you into rooms with buyers, but at the end of the day, it’s what you put down on the page, how you present yourself in meetings, and the your own networking which is likely to translate into writing assignments.

Another thing: Do your research. Find out what movies the management outfit has been involved with, oftentimes as producers. Do they specialize in only a few genres? Are they big enough to have managers who cover all genres? Try to discover what writers they represent. I remember when I signed with my first agents (Bauer / Benedek which later merged into UTA), as soon as I heard they represented Lawrence Kasdan, screenwriter whose credits include Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strike Back, Body Heat and The Big Chill, I was like, “Done!”

Finally, determine who exactly is going to be handling you. It’s important you have a good feeling about the manager who will be your main point person as well as the others on your team with whom you won’t be meeting as frequently. I can’t swear to this, but if you have a choice between a hungry, young manager who gets your material and is pumped to take you on to help them make their mark versus a more established manager with a lot of clients, many of them A or B-list, my sense from talking with my writer connections is they would recommend the former. Sometimes there is nothing more important for a writer than to have that type of proactive energy on their side, especially at the beginning of their career.

Obviously there are lots of variables which can influence your choice, so let me reach out to the GITS community: What are your thoughts about these questions? Have I missed some points? Are there other concerns to raise when assessing multiple managerial possibilities?

Please take a few moments and post your thoughts in comments.

Reader Question: What are ways to study films in the same genre as my script?

June 24th, 2014 by

Reader Question via Twitter from @37filmsltd:

In the early stages of writing a script. Where do I find discussion of other films in the genre?

Boy, have you come to the right place! You can start your process by using this blog which has multiple relevant archives.

Deep Focus: The Go Into The Movies Project — Scripts and Screenwriting: You can go here and see lists of movies broken down into genres, a great guideline of essential films you should study. Watch each movie in your genre. Read the script. Per the latter:

How to Read a Screenplay: A 7-part series to steer you into an immersive analytical process. This will help you dissect and break down stories.

Go Into The Story Script Reading and Analysis: From (500) Days of Summer to Up in the Air, dozens of movie scripts analyzed by myself and GITS readers. Find movies in your genre and take in the commentary.

30 Days of Screenplays (2013) / 30 Days of Screenplays (2014): 60 scripts with analysis. Pick ones in your genre and have at it.

Great Characters: Hundreds of memorable movie characters with analysis. Go through the list and check out characters in your genre.

What do you do with all those resources?

* Identify commonalities between movies, scripts and stories in your genre including narrative themes, dynamics, plot elements, and tropes.

* Note elements that are different and unique, perhaps where the filmmakers played with the conventions of the genre.

* Look at character types, what roles they play, their respective narrative functions.

* Study dialogue including idioms and slang native to whatever subculture each story features.

* I would strongly recommend you do scene-by-scene breakdowns of several movies as this is the single best way to dig into the underlying structure of a story.

Your instincts are spot on. I’ve interviewed a bunch of young, dynamic Hollywood screenwriters who specialize in writing action movies (for example) and each of them has studied that genre in detail. In short, they know their shit.

You are well-advised to do the same.

GITS readers, any other advice or resources? Please head to comments and share your thoughts.

Reader Question: What are some tips for figuring out the ending of a story?

June 23rd, 2014 by

Question via Twitter from @WrittenbyKendra:

What are your tips for creating the ending of a short film/screenplay in the outline phase?

Let’s start with Billy Wilder who said this: “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”

A screenwriter needs to think about the ending as being grounded in the story’s beginning. Do your work up front and you’ll find your ending.

By “work,” mostly I mean digging into your characters. And almost invariably, the key to the ending will come by working with your Protagonist.

What does s/he want?
What does s/he need?

If you can determine the Protagonist’s conscious goal (Want), that will inform what’s going on in the Plotline / External World.

If you can determine the Protagonist’s unconscious goal (Need), that will inform what’s going on in the Themeline / Internal World.

You work with the Protagonist – their Conscious and Unconscious Goal – in the context of the story’s other characters, and brainstorm what is the possible resolution between the two.

That dynamic tension is at the core of the Protagonist’s metamorphosis.

Ovid wrote, “The seeds of change lie within.” The Protagonist almost always needs to change. If you can identify the arc of the Protagonist’s change, that should inform your understanding of the end point of the story’s psychological story.

Hopefully that will suggest a set of events that build to some sort of climax / Final Struggle, one that is imbued with emotional meaning tethered to the Protagonist’s metamorphosis.

Which leads to this question: Why does this story have to happen to this character at this time?

There is a kind of destiny for movie characters and in particular the Protagonist. Call it their Narrative Imperative.

Again if you do the work you need to do with your characters, particularly your Protagonist, where they begin the story should indicate where they will end it.

A great resource on this comes from screenwriter Michael Arndt who created a wonderful presentation he calls: “ENDINGS: The Good, the Bad, the Insanely Great.” I posted about that here.

Other considerations include brainstorming events that build the scope and size of the ending, bringing into play whatever Nemesis / oppositional characters you have in the story to do their part in the ending, considering what type of ending the story requires: upbeat, downbeat, happy, tragic, resolved, unresolved.

But mostly, it’s about the characters and in particular, the Protagonist and their narrative destiny.

What about you, readers? What advice do you have on this subject?

Reader Questions

June 20th, 2014 by

Time again for any questions you may have about the craft or business of screenwriting, writing, movies, TV, Hollywood, the meaning of life, whatever. Obviously I’m happy to provide my two cents, but often what happens is the response of the GITS community in comments provides excellent insight as well.

While we’re at it, have you checked out the GITS Reader Question archive? Literally hundreds of questions and answers. Tons of helpful info there.

If you have a question not answered there, head to comments and post away.

Let’s talk, people!

Reader Question: How to handle the passage of time in a script?

June 4th, 2014 by

An question from Dan:

I’ve got a screenwriting question if you wouldn’t mind having a look. I’m an 18 year old kid writing my first script, a biopic, and trying to learn the trade while also piecing together my script I run into problems quite a bit…

One thing at the moment which I’d love to hear your knowledge on, is how to believably convey time passing without the use of title cards, and without a montage, but in a relatively small frame of time. The entertainer my script is about moves to LA at the age of 18, and has some success doing gigs there, he even lands a part on a pilot which doesn’t get picked up, but he decides within two years to return home to readjust his outlook. I’m still drawing an exact outline of where I want events to fit into place, but I’m pretty sure that his entire experience in LA (which really is only the tip of the iceberg for his career) will be almost introductory and within the first 5-10 pages.
I have some brief character stuff going on and I don’t want to cut this out because I feel it is an important part of his early career, although it may end up being so brief that it is almost useless. I’ll have to work on it.

So sorry, if you want to skip that, my question is how would I show the time passing for this character? Or in general, what are some non-hack ways of presenting a move forward in time so that it doesn’t feel like he’s performing in one instance and then we fade to black and suddenly he has a beard and is talking about leaving?

That’s a good question. As any GITS reader knows who’s had to deal with time shifts in a script, it’s a tricky business because you are requiring the reader to jump from this time period to that time period. That may not seem like a big deal, but if you’ve worked super hard to lure a reader into your story universe, any time jump can cause them to blink – Wait a sec, what’s happening – and if they blink long enough, they can fall out of the story.

The actual pragmatics of it are easy enough. Let’s say you start your script with this establishing scene:


Then you set up your character where they begin the story. After that sequence, you shift the action to L.A. some years later. All you would have to do is this:


And there you go – you’ve made your time-jump.

But it’s not enough to simply make the time-jump, you need to handle it for what it really is: a transition. And as I say, it’s tricky to do that in a “non hack way.”

One approach is to use a narrator. For example, that’s how writer-director Frank Darabont handled the many time-jumps he had to make in The Shawshank Redemption. Here is the first big one in the script:

46	INT -- BACK ROOMS/STOCK AREA -- DAY (1947) 46

	-- a dark, tangled maze of rooms and corridors, boilers and
	furnaces, sump pumps, old washing machines, pallets of 
	cleaning supplies and detergents, you name it. Andy hefts a 
	cardboard drum of Hexlite off the stack, turns around -- 

	-- and finds Bogs Diamond in the aisle. blocking his way.
	Rooster looms from the shadows to his right, Pete Verness
	on the left. A frozen beat. Andy slams the Hexlite to the
	floor, rips off the top, and scoops out a double handful.

		You get this in your eyes, it 
		blinds you. 

		Honey, hush. 

	Andy backs up, holding them at bay, trying to maneuver through 
	the maze. The Sisters keep coming, tense and guarded, eyes 
	riveted and gauging his every move, trying to outflank him. 
	Andy trips on some old gaint sugglies. That's all it takes. 
	They're on him in an instant, kicking and stomping. 

	Andy gets yanked to his feet. Bogs applies a chokehold from 
	behind. They propel him across the room and slam him against 
	an old four-pocket machine, bending him over it. Rooster jams 
	a rag into Andy's mouth and secures it with a steel pipe, like 
	a horse bit. Andy kicks and struggles, but Rooster and Pete 
	have his arms firmly pinned. Bogs whispers in Andy's ear: 

		That's it, fight. Better that way. 

	Andy starts screaming, muffled by the rag. CAMERA PULLS BACK, 
	SLOWLY WIDENING. The big Washex blocks our view. All we see 
	is Andy's screaming face and the men holding him down... 

	...and CAMERA DRIFTS FROM THE ROOM, leaving the dark place 
	and the dingy act behind...MOVING up empty corridors, past 
	concrete walls and steel pipes... 

				RED (V.O.) 
		I wish I could tell you that Andy 
		fought the good fight, and the 
		Sisters let him be. I wish I could 
		tell you that, but prison is no 
		fairy-tale world. 

	WE EMERGE into the prison laundry past a guard, WIDENING for 
	a final view of the line. The giant steel "mangler" is 
	slapping down in brutal rhythm. The sound is deafening. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		He never said who did it...but we 
		all knew. 

	PRISON MONTAGE: (1947 through 1949) 

	shaping his rocks after lights-out... 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Things went on like that for a 
		while. Prison life consists of 
		routine, and then more routine. 


				RED (V.O.) 
		Every so often, Andy would show up 
		with fresh bruises. 


				RED (V.O.) 
		The Sisters kept at him. Sometimes 
		he was able to fight them off... 
		sometimes not. 

	wildly swinging a rake at his tormentors. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		He always fought, that's what I 
		remember. He fought because he knew 
		if he didn't fight, it would make 
		it that much easier not to fight 
		the next time. 

	The rake connects, snapping off over somebody's skull. They 
	beat the hell out of him. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Half the time it landed him in the 


	A stone closet. No bed, sink, or lights. Just a toilet with no 
	seat. Andy sits on bare concrete, bruised face lit by a faint 
	ray of light falling through the tiny slit in the steel door. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		...the other half, it landed him in 
		solitary. Warden Norton's "grain & 
		drain" vacation. Bread, water, and 
		all the privacy you could want. 

Two things. First, voice-over narration is frowned upon in Hollywood. I think it’s because there is a belief that using a narrator is somehow an example of sloppy writing. Certainly that can be the case, but as movies like Shawshank, Forrest Gump, and Sunset Blvd. prove, narrator V.O. can also be used to excellent effect.

Second, you’ll notice that Darabont uses a montage. That’s another time-jumping device that can be used poorly – probably the reason you included it in your question as an example of something you would prefer not using. But as this excerpt from Shawshank demonstrates, a montage can also be used quite effectively as an approach to transitions. If we look at this excerpt closely, I’d say there are at least three keys to a good montage:

* The entire montage has its own Beginning, Middle, and End (that is, it tells its own ‘little’ story).

* Each of the beats not only suggests a passage of time, but also communicates something of interest, both substantively re the plot and visually as a form of entertainment.

* The Beginning pulls the reader into the montage and the Ending pushes the reader into the following scene. In the excerpt above, the Beginning takes off from Andy getting raped, certainly a gripping event which will naturally elicit a reader’s curiosity to see what happens next. As for the Ending of the montage, here it is:

52	INT -- PRISON LAUNDRY -- DAY (1949) 52

	Andy is working the line. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		And that's how it went for Andy. That 
		was his routine. I do believe those 
		first two years were the worst for 
		him. And I also believe if things 
		had gone on that way, this place 
		would have got the best of him. 
		But then, in the spring of 1949, 
		the powers-that-be decided that... 

53	EXT -- PRISON YARD -- DAY (1949) 53

	Warden Norton addresses the assembled cons via bullhorn: 

		...the roof of the license-plate 
		factory needs resurfacing. I need a 
		dozen volunteers for a week's work. 
		We're gonna be taking names in this 
		steel bucket here... 

	Red glances around at his friends. Andy also catches his eye.

				RED (V.O.) 
		It was outdoor detail, and May is 
		one damn fine month to be workin' 

54	EXT -- PRISON YARD -- DAY (1949) 54

	Cons shuffle past, dropping slips of paper into a bucket. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		More than a hundred men volunteered 
		for the job. 

	Red saunters to a guard named TIM YOUNGBLOOD, mutters 
	discreetly in his ear. 

55	EXT -- PRISON YARD -- DAY (1949) 55

	Youngblood is pulling names and reading them off. Red 
	exchanges grins with Andy and the others. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Wouldn't you know it? Me and some 
		fellas I know were among the names 

56	INT -- PRISON CORRIDOR -- NIGHT (1949) 56

	Red slips Youngblood six packs of cigarettes. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Only cost us a pack of smokes per 
		man. I made my usual twenty 
		percent, of course. 


	A tar-cooker bubbles and smokes. TWO CONS dip up a bucket of
	tar and tie a rope to the handle. The rope goes taught. CAMERA
	FOLLOWS the bucket of tar up the side of the building to -- 

58 	THE ROOF 58

	-- where it is relayed to the work detail. the men are dipping
	big Padd brushes and spreading the tar. ANGLZ OVER to Byron 
	Hadley bitching sourly to his fellow guards: 

				HADLEY this shithead lawyer calls 
		long distance from Texas, and he 
		says, Byron Hadley? I say, yeah. He 
		says, sorry to inform you, but your 
		brother just died.

The montage offers a seamless transition into the next scene — the famous “Suds on the Roof” business where Andy helps out Hadley with his financial dilemma, which turns out to be a huge turning point in Andy – and Red’s – life in Shawshank.

Another way to handle time-jumps is to position the story in such a way that a key character is looking back on their life. Forrest Gump does this as well as movies like Little Big Man. This allows you the possibility of telling a story in a linear fashion (like Gump and Big Man), or you can jump around and tell the story in a non-linear fashion. But by approaching the story like this, you’ll be using flashbacks and that is another narrative device that is looked upon with disfavor per Hwood’s conventional wisdom.

But if you’re just looking for ways to smooth over transitions, here are a couple of tricks.

* Visual-to-visual transition: Use a visual image to link the preceding and following sequence. For example, consider this transition from the Elliot & Rossio script for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, from the opening sequence where Elizabeth, as a young girl, first meets a young Will Turner:

Elizabeth looks from it to the medallion -- the skull on the
flag is the same as the one on the medallion.

Fog surrounds and closes in on the black ship -- except for 
the black flag. As Elizabeth watches, the skull appears to 
TURN and GRIN at her --

Elizabeth shuts her eyes tight --



-- and then snap open again, startled wide with fear.

But this is no longer twelve-year-old Elizabeth standing on
the stern of the Dauntless; this is twenty-year-old Elizabeth,
lying in bed in the dark.

The visual link is Elizabeth’s eyes.

* Audio-to-audio transition: In the same way, you can use a sound to provide a link between a preceding and following sequence. The classic example, which I’m sure you’ve seen 10,000 times in TV shows and movies is an airplane:


Teenager WILL kicks at the chafed soil. Then he hears a sound - 
an airplane FLYING overhead. He squints up at the jet --

Someday I'm gonna fly away from here...

The sound of the airplane grows LOUDER --

INT. JET - DAY (1978)

-- and LOUDER as WILL, now a handsome young man (21), presses 
against the airplane window as it lands with a jolt --

Welcome to Los Angeles.

While those can help smooth transitions, they really are filigree. The keys are as noted above. And I would say the single most important thing is to pull the reader into the ending of the preceding sequence, making them curious about what’s going to happen next, then push them into the beginning of the following sequence, depositing them smack in the middle of the action so that they don’t have time to dawdle or think — just keep them moving.

I’m sure GITS readers will have lots of ideas for you – so please everyone, chime in with your suggestions for Dan.

[Originally posted February 2, 2010]

Reader Question: How to keep from getting stuck in Act Two?

May 22nd, 2014 by

Reader question from Mahmoud:

I always get stuck in the 2nd act and it sucks. I have great concept for a drama film and I write the first act successfully, then in the second the characters seem to shutdown, I just can’t connect with them. Do you have any idea why and do you have any solution please?

Mahmoud, I have two suggestions. The first is a generic one: Go here and read How I Write a Script. There are 10 posts – and 7 of them deal with what I call “prep-writing,” everything from story concept to brainstorming, character development to plotting. The simple fact that I devote 7 of 10 lectures to prep-writing should give you a big clue about my underlying philosophy: It is absolutely critical to devote enough time preparing your story before moving into the page-writing phase.

[I have posted several times re this very point: Do a search of the site on "prep-writing" and I'm sure you'll find a number of those posts.]

The single biggest contributing factor to a script’s demise is, I think, the fact that the writer does not spend enough time going into their story, doing everything that is necessary to understand the characters, grasp how and why the plot works, what the important themes are, etc. They know enough to write a solid first act, but as soon as they move into the second act, they lose their way.

So just generically, I would advise you to devote more time in prepping to write your script.

The second response is inspired by this phrase you used in your query: “then in the second [act] the characters seem to shutdown, I just can’t connect with them.”

This suggests that you haven’t spent enough time with your characters. In my experience, most characters want their story to be told. So it’s up to you as the writer to create a connection with them. If you they don’t feel like you’ve taken time enough to understand them, perhaps that’s why they’re shutting you down.

[This is another area I've posted about several times, so another site search would be a good idea, this time using the words "character development."]

However for purposes of this post, let me propose three ideas re character development:

* Get curious: Ask each of your main characters questions about themselves, essentially conduct an interview. I like to open a Word file per each character and do the ‘interview’ there. Here is an initial set of questions you can ask:

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?

Answer these questions:

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…

This last question – what are you most afraid of – can be the single most important way to zero in on the core essence of a character. As a rule, people try to avoid pain. If they know what scares them, they will go to great lengths to construct a daily life that avoids that which causes them fear. Therefore in many ways, the answer to this question is a key to understanding how and why a character is ‘constructed’ (psychologically) the way they are.

* Sit with your characters: Sit down with your character in mind and consider them. And as you sit with them, write down the thoughts and feelings that you have. Don’t edit, just transpose what you experience about your characters, then into your fingers, and finally onto the keyboard or paper (if you’re writing longhand). Essentially you are giving your character room to communicate to and with you.

* Consider what their narrative function is: After you’ve spent a good portion of time with your characters, asking them questions and sitting with them so they can ‘talk’ to you, think about how each of the characters functions in terms of the plot. Which is the Protagonist? Who is the Nemesis? Is there an Attractor character (one who is connected most closely to the P’s emotional development)? Is there a Mentor character (one who is connected most closely to the P’s intellectual development)? Is there a Trickster character (one who acts as an ally to the P some times, and other times as a enemy)?

By identifying their core narrative function, that can provide another key insight into who each character is. Plus, in determining what each character’s primary role is in relation to the Plotline, you can stay laser focused on what their respective goals are, not only long-term, but also in terms of every single scene.

Often the most important questions you ask are of your Protagonist because it is their goals that define the journey. So one way to approach your characters is this:

* Who is my Protagonist?

* What do they want (External Goal)?

* What do they need (Internal goal)?

* Who is keeping them from their goal (Nemesis)?

And then on to see which characters are connected primarily to the P’s emotional development (Attractor), P’s intellectual development (Mentor), who tests the P sometimes as enemy, sometimes as ally (Trickster).

So the big notes: Spend more time with your characters. Dig into who they are and why they are the way they are. Get curious about them – ask them questions. Give them room to talk – sit with each character. And try to sort out what each character’s narrative function is.

As I said, I believe that characters want their story to be told. If you show each character the respect they deserve by spending time with them, asking them questions, listening to them talk, discerning what their core narrative function is, it’s likely they will not shut you down, but rather stay connected with you, allies in your page-writing process.

[Originally posted December 20, 2009]