Reader Question: How to approach writing a story with multiple main characters?

February 9th, 2016 by

From an anonymous GITS reader:

I was curious about stories which follow multiple characters, each with their own plight to overcome in the overlapping storyline. I suppose my question is more than one… which films are good examples of this and the second being what are tips to remember when assuming this format? What are issues that a writer should be concerned with, i.e. things to avoid when writing multiple main characters? I also assume this is suitable for both Drama and other genres.

A good starting point for your research might be this post [originally posted 10/26/08] re the movie Traffic, which is a great example of the type of movie you’re talking about. An excerpt:

Recently an English film critic Alissa Court used the phrase hyperlink cinema to describe this type of filmmaking:

Hyperlink movies are films following multiple story lines and multiple characters. These story lines and characters intersect obliquely and subtly. Events in one story line affect other story lines or characters, often in ways that the characters are unaware of or do not fully understand. Hyperlink cinema is often characterized by globe-spanning locations, multiple languages, multiple characters, strict parameters in art direction and cinematography, and frequent and drastic use of flashback and flashforward. Mise en scene are used in each story line, to create an abrupt visual break when cutting between characters and story lines.

Think movies like Crash (2004), Babel (2006), and Happy Endings (2005).

My students prefer the moniker multilinear.

Re advice how to approach writing a multilinear script, another excerpt from my OP:

If you have any aspirations to write a multiple-storyline script,Traffic is a great script to analyze. Gaghan excels in this type of storytelling, witness another excellent ‘multilinear’ script Syriana (2005). On the surface, these type of projects may be seem to be really difficult to write, however it’s mostly a matter of working out each subplot’s story arc — beginning, middle, end — then interweaving them, hopefully so that thematic elements in one subplot embellish the theme in another subplot. It’s not terribly different than what numerous 1-hour TV cop / legal / medical dramas do, stretching all the way from “Hill Street Blues” to “ER” to “C.S.I.”, each of which features (typically) three different subplots, cross cutting between each. Interesting to note that Gaghan wrote one episode of “NYPD Blue”, a show created by Stephen Bocho who has created several TV series that use multiple storylines.

Other key advice:

* Think of the lead characters in each of your subplots as their own Protagonist. Ask fundamental questions about each Protagonist: What do they want (their conscious External World goal); What do they need (their hidden Internal World goal); Who is trying to stop them from their goal (Nemesis); Who is most connected to their emotional development (Attractor); Who is most connected to their intellectual development (Mentor); Who tests them by shifting back and forth from ally to enemy (Trickster). Each of your subplots may not have a full retinue of primary character archetypes, but even so it’s good to understand the relative narrative function of each of that subplot’s characters.

* Be mindful of how, where, when, and why your subplots intersect. As the movie Crash demonstrated so well, those points of interconnection between disparate characters is one of the distinctive strengths of multi-linear stories. You would be wise to spend a good deal of time brainstorming possibilities in this regard, looking for surprising ways to cross various characters’ paths.

* In my experience, the best multilinear movies are those which revolve around one central theme because that theme can pull together the contrasting characters and their respective storylines into a coherent whole. So that’s another area to work on as you prep and write your script.

On a practical level, Stephen Bochco (noted above) came up with a simple system in cracking plots on shows like “N.Y.P.D. Blue”: Color coded 3×5 inch index cards. That is you designate one color for each subplot, work through each of that subplots major beats, then cross-cut between each subplot. I read about Bochco’s approach years ago and to my knowledge, TV writers still approach structuring scripts with multiple storylines in pretty much the same way.

One final piece of advice: While you should watch several multilinear movies and read their scripts as well, you’d be well-advised to do a scene-by-scene breakdown. You can even reverse engineer per the 3×5 inch index card approach, assigning one color per each subplot, then physically tack each scene card up onto the wall to see the story’s structure laid out before your eyes. Great way to grok how multilinear movies work.

GITS readers, any other suggestions on how to handle multilinear stories?

Here are some trailers of notable multilinear movies:

[Originally posted July 11, 2010]

Reader Question: Should I write a science fiction script on spec or not?

February 2nd, 2016 by

I get this question occasionally, something like this:

I hear science fiction is hot, but it’s hard to sell a spec script in that genre. Should I write a science fiction script on spec or not?

This came up the other day in a discussion. Here was my response:

I could give you the conventional wisdom advice — which is not to write a science fiction spec script — but then we’d probably wake up tomorrow to discover one had just sold! That’s the way things can work in Hollywood where, as William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything.”

That said, there is logic in advising against writing a specific kind of science fiction movie and that is a huge spectacle which involves world-building and a budget of $100M+. There are only 6 buyers who can finance and distribute these type of movies, so you have limited players. Plus there is an attitude among the major studios that the only type of writers they feel comfortable with handling those kinds of big budget projects and in this specific type of genre are established sci-fi writers.

However if you have a science fiction story like Moon, which if I recall correctly had a production budget of about $5M, that’s a different story. A small story with a big idea, those kind of sci-fi projects I have no problem saying, “Go for it.” You can show those to any buyer, literally dozens of them. Even if you don’t sell it, your reps can use it to expose you to prod cos and financiers who, if you hit it off, may bring you in on another project. Plus you always have this script in your personal library, an asset which may someday get produced.

Case in point, a science fiction project called Passengers:

Here is the plot summary via IMDb: “A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 60 years early.”

Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, obviously this is much more than a $5M budget, but like Moon, it is a big idea in a contained environment. And now after a decade, it’s getting produced. It’s a great script and Jon Spaihts deserves a world of credit for it.

What if your science fiction story is a big budget project? I’d still suggest you come up with a low-budget story concept and write that, however if you feel super passionate about the big ticket item, like if you don’t write it, you feel like you will have missed out on giving expression to something important to you, better to write it than not. Maybe you don’t sell it now, perhaps it’s something you bring out after you’ve established yourself, but at least you will have responded to your creativity.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll write something as compelling as Passengers.

Readers, what are your thoughts: Write a big budget science fiction spec or not? Love to see your comments.

Reader Question: Are screenplay contests any good or not?

January 13th, 2016 by

Nicholas, I re-framed the question to get at what I suspect is the heart of your inquiry. I tend to have a pretty jaundiced view of most screenplay contests. In my view, there are really only a handful which carry much weight in the real world of Hollywood, the most notable one being the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting which is sponsored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science. That is by far the most prestigious and important competition. Winners almost always get representation, even finalists and semifinalists get attention. I have interviewed 15 Nicholl winning writers including all of the fellowship recipients from 2012, 2013, and 2014, and if you read myconversations with them, they all talk about how being selected changed their lives.

The next most influential one is the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition. My sense is this is not as influential as the Nicholl, but it does seem to have grown in significance over the last five years or so.

There are a few others worth exploring, but strictly in terms of serving as a legitimate entry point into Hollywood – and that means obtaining representation and potential option or sale of the material – a vast majority of these contests are largely meaningless.

Think about the underlying logic why the dozens and dozens of these contests exist: To make money for the sponsoring entities. That’s a big reason why they charge the entry fees they do.

There are a few reasons why entering contests may make sense for some writers:

  • Having a deadline for a contest can serve as motivation to complete a script. Hey, whatever it takes to finish a writing project!
  • Some outfits provide written feedback and notes which can be helpful, however you have to do your research because anybody can claim to have experience as a Hollywood reader, and if what you pay for is in effect the impressions of an intern, probably not worth the expenditure.
  • Finally for some writers, the experience of being a semifinalist in this contest or a top 10% of that contest can be a psychological boost, perhaps even a sign of getting better from script to script.

Bottom line, you are wise to check out any screenwriting contest before entering. It’s not hard to do with Google and various online writing forums.

I will say this: The ultimate contest is with Hollywood buyers. If you want a direct line to them via a reputable organization approved by both the WGA East and WGA West, check out the Black List service. I don’t know specific numbers, but the last time I spoke with Franklin Leonard about this subject, he told me well over 100 writers had gotten representation, had scripts optioned or sold, even had movies made from scripts which were uploaded to their website. The script readers are all vetted and have experience working in Hollywood. And in my view, the fees are quite reasonable. The main thing: It provides direct transparent access to people who have the power to do something with your stories.

Note: I do not make a dime from my association with the Black List, so my comments aren’t biased by any profit-making motivation. They are biased by my knowledge of who Franklin is, my personal interactions with the entire Black List team, and my embrace of the Black List vision: To create alternate avenues into Hollywood for writers outside the system.

I’m curious to read what other people have to say on the subject. Please head to comments and let me hear your thoughts. Give us all a chance to get a snapshot of the whole screenwriting contest universe.

UPDATE: I forwarded some comments to this post re the Black List website and script hosting service to Franklin Leonard. Here is his response:

The simple reality is that industry professionals are interested in reading screenplays that they will respond to. Writers who host scripts on the website can indicate that likelihood in a few ways. Loglines and tags are two, but far, far more important are the opinions of others who have previously read their script. In Black List website terms, that means paid evaluation scores and the ratings of other industry professionals.

Though we considered requiring everyone to purchase an evaluation when they uploaded a script (and receive one month of hosting for $75), we designed the website as we did in order to give writers maximum flexibility in using the platform. If you can get industry professionals to download and rate your script without purchasing evaluations, you can do so. If you wish to use purchased evaluations to encourage interest in your script, you can do that too.

The claim that you need an 8/10 or better on a paid evaluation in order to receive any notice for your script on the site is simply false. Off the top of my head, I can say, for example, that the average number of unique industry downloads for scripts whose highest ever paid evaluation is a 7 is 2.8.

Let me add my understanding of the script notes provided by Black List readers is they provide about 2 pages of comments with numeric values attached to key narrative categories (character, plot, etc) to give the writer a broad sense of whether the story is working or not and highlight largest areas of concern. If you want more extensive notes, there are professional readers I can recommend who will do that for you, but for more money than what the Black List service charges.

Reader Question: What pitfalls to avoid when writing a script?

January 6th, 2016 by

Question via Twitter:

Here is a list off the top of my head:

A Quick Top 10 List of Screenwriting Pitfalls to Avoid

1. Don’t get caught up in supposed screenwriting ‘rules’.
2. Don’t commit to a story you don’t really care about.
3. Don’t rely too heavily on dialogue to advance your plot.
4. Don’t populate your story with thin, superficial characters.
5. Don’t worry so much about page count.
6. Don’t choose a weak story concept.
7. Don’t write long, meandering scenes.
8. Don’t ignore your story’s internal world.
9. Don’t lay out too much exposition at a time.
10. Don’t quit until you get to FADE OUT.

Seeing as I’m fundamentally a postive-minded person, let me reverse the tone of this list (each of these below is the obverse of the same numbered item above).

A Quick Top 10 List of Screenwriting Habits to Embrace

1. Do allow yourself to explore your creativity, especially in early drafts.
2. Do discover a story you’re passionate about… and use that passion to write the hell out of it.
3. Do remember at all times that movies are primarily a visual medium.
4. Do immerse yourself in characters’ lives, allowing them to emerge as full-throated, multidimensional individuals.
5. Do have the freedom to write the story the way it needs to be told.
6. Do find the strongest story concept possible and write to that concept’s narrative strengths.
7. Do focus each scene on one goal, then get in late and exit early to establish and sustain pace.
8. Do engage your characters directly to learn about their emotions and psyches, allowing them to ‘tell’ their story.
9. Do use the technique of teasing the reader with information because arousing curiosity is a good thing.
10. Do commit to getting to FADE OUT because you will learn so much more about your story by getting to the end.

Oh, hell, just to make it clear, here they are together!

A Quick Top 10 List of Screenwriting Don’ts and Do’s

1. Don’t get caught up in supposed screenwriting ‘rules’.
Do allow yourself to explore your creativity, especially in early drafts.

2. Don’t commit to a story you don’t really care about.
Do discover a story you’re passionate about… and use that passion to write the hell out of it.

3. Don’t rely too heavily on dialogue to advance your plot.
Do remember at all times that movies are primarily a visual medium.

4. Don’t populate your story with thin, superficial characters.
Do immerse yourself in characters’ lives, allowing them to emerge as full-throated, multidimensional individuals.

5. Don’t worry so much about page count.
Do have the freedom to write the story the way it needs to be told.

6. Don’t choose a weak story concept.
Do find the strongest story concept possible and write to that concept’s narrative strengths.

7. Don’t write long, meandering scenes.
Do focus each scene on one goal, then get in late and exit early to establish and sustain pace.

8. Don’t ignore your story’s internal world.
Do engage your characters directly to learn about their emotions and psyches, allowing them to ‘tell’ their story.

9. Don’t lay out too much exposition at a time.
Do use the technique of teasing the reader with information because arousing curiosity is a good thing.

10. Don’t quit until you get to FADE OUT.
Do commit to getting to FADE OUT because you will learn so much more about your story by getting to the end.

Anybody else have some pitfalls to avoid or habits to embrace?

Reader Question: What’s the biggest writing lesson you learned through a mistake?

December 30th, 2015 by

Oh goodness, Rebecca, where do I start! Honestly one of the reasons I launched Go Into The Story nearly 8 years ago was to try to impart some insight I’d discovered in my tenure in Hollywood. In fact, you can go through most of my The Business of Screenwriting posts and see how many of them derived from times I simply didn’t do the right thing.

If pressed to zero in on the single biggest writing lesson I learned based on a mistake, I would have to say it’s this: Write more spec scripts.

Once I came to Hollywood and started landing writing assignments and selling pitches, I only wrote a handful of original spec scripts. I should have taken on more of them.

In my defense, the function of a spec script has evolved. Back in the day, a spec script was seen primarily as a vehicle for an aspiring writer to break into the business. Yes, there were the Shane Blacks of the world who continued to write specs after establishing themselves, but it was not nearly as common a practice as it is in today’s Hollywood.

I would have been smarter to write more specs, at least 1 per year, especially so because I was identified as part of a writing team. Setting up a solo spec script would have made a big difference in establishing myself as my own writer.

My advice born out of this experience: Write at least 1 and preferably 2 spec scripts per year. Indeed, that’s one of my writing goals in 2016.

You need look no further than writers who have made the jump into the business in the last decade or so. Brian Duffield, F. Scott Frazier, Daniel Kunka, and others, no matter how busy they are with assignments, they continue to pound out spec material.

It keeps you sharp. It generates another piece of material you can possibly sell. It gives you the opportunity to write stories which are personal to you.

There’s just no downside to writing a spec. Sure, it may not sell. Hell, chances are it won’t. But what you learn about yourself as a writer… you cannot measure how important that is. And sometimes, you hit a home run with a script which can substantially alter your career in a big way.

So write specs. Bare minimum: 1 per year. But push yourself to write 2 each year.

How about you? What writing lessons have you learned from your mistakes? Curious to see what folks say in comments.

Reader Question: Is it useful to read a bad script to see what not to do?

December 29th, 2015 by

@DStraker90 tweeted a question the other day:

Is it useful to read a bad script to see what not to do? I mean that as a serious question.

Damien, I tend to focus my ‘preaching’ on good movie scripts as reading material, however bad scripts can be every bit as educational in their own way.

First off, I can’t tell you how many Hollywood writers I’ve interviewed, read, or heard say one of the main reasons they even considered screenwriting was because they had been reading one lousy script after another. I dare say if you could sit down with any pro script reader, assistant, or intern, they would tell you 90% or more of the scripts they churn through are mediocre to poor to utter rubbish. Read enough crap scripts, it’s easy to imagine how someone could say, “Hell, I can write better than that.” So there’s that.

“It’s incredible when you read
the bad screenplays of amateurs and aspirants,
not only do they not resemble real life or human behavior,
they don’t resemble movies.”
— Lem Dobbs

But more to your point, can reading a bad script give a writer a grasp of “what not to do”? Yes. The key, however, is not to read a bad script, but lots of them. One script may suck at a few craft related things. If you want to get more of a grasp of the whole panoply of poor writing techniques, better to immerse yourself in tons of scripts. That way trends start to emerge like:

  • Relying way too much on dialogue to advance the plot.
  • Dialogue which sounds like someone writing, not like someone talking.
  • Characters whose dialogues sounds too similar.
  • Too much exposition.
  • Unfocused scenes with too many things going on.
  • Scenes which go on for far too long.
  • Too many scenes of the same type, one after the other.
  • Characters with unclear motivations.
  • Characters who do something out of character just to service the plot.

You read 10-20 bad scripts where these type of things occur over and over, it’s likely you’ll grok that writing lesson in a way you wouldn’t just by talking about it in the abstract.

I would say this: Balance out your reading of bad scripts with great ones. This will highlight both the good and bad writing even more, and reading good scripts can keep you from slipping into cynicism, an attitude which can develop if all you do is slog through one piece of tripe after another.

Another thing: Your job as a professional screenwriter is basically that of a problem-solver. You want to be able to read a script, identify its problem areas, then come up with ways to fix those issues. One way to develop your critical analytical skills is by reading scripts including bad ones.

How to obtain bad scripts? My cute answer: Read some of my zero drafts! But honestly, this is another reason to find and join a writers group. Not that you’re necessarily seek out bad writers, in fact, you’re doing quite the opposite. However as my tongue-in-cheek response above suggests, even good writers can create bad pages. It’s all part of the process of going from a script that sucks to something which does not suck.

Another route: Various screenwriting contests including, I believe, the Austin Film Festival have volunteers weed through submissions. I don’t have much in the way of details, but I’ll bet GITS readers will have some ideas in this regard. People, please help out Damien with some suggestions.

Also what are your thoughts: Reading bad scripts a good idea? Head to comments and let us know your thoughts.

Reader Question: Is the use of symbolism a good thing?

December 4th, 2015 by

Reader question from Piotr:

Hi Scott,

I am writing an action spec script.

In one of the early scenes, the protagonist watches two goons shove a third guy into one another, throwing a punch with each shove.

This is meant to symbolize the fact that the protagonist bounces between two other (father-figure) characters throughout the story and ends up suffering for it each time.

In your view, should I hint at this symbolism in the spec script I’m writing?

Thanks a lot!

Here is my response:

Piotr, why don’t we expand what you’re calling ‘symbolism’ into a broader frame and that is this: In a screenplay, when something happens… something ELSE happens. You can read a blog post I wrote on this subject here.

A good story has all sorts of layers to it. There’s what we see and hear, Action and Dialogue, but then things going on underneath the surface. Sometimes they can be specifically symbolic – for example, a cop disgusted with police work tosses his badge into the ocean. But more often than not, there are multiple levels of meaning.

And that’s great because we want to pull in readers to a story’s depth and potential meaning.

So for example, consider Zuzu’s petals in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. They are from a flower which Zuzu won as a prize:

Of course, they exist as part of the plot so that later George WON’T find them in his pocket – when Clarence has made it so George never existed – then WILL find them when he is returned to the land of the living. This is the practical plot-oriented function of the petals.

But what do the petals represent?

* Yet ANOTHER thing George has to fix. His whole life has turned out to be about him helping others. And in doing so, he’s turned away from the very things he wanted to do: travel the world, build big things.

* A flower is beautiful, but in his moment of despair, he is unable to see their beauty, unlike Zuzu who is enraptured by the flower.

* Fragility. Existence is fragile, something George comes to experience in nearly committing suicide, then seeing how big a difference one person’s life can make, either for good or bad. How fragile that line based on choices we make every moment of every day.

So it’s a flower. But below the surface, there are layers of meaning which give this scene, indeed, the flower’s tiny subplot, added meaning.

Therefore, yes, look for ‘symbolic’ moments. Embrace the idea that when something happens… something ELSE happens!

It’s more than just symbolism. There are layers upon layers of emotional meaning and psychological depth available to us in any scene, any character, any moment.

We just have to have the eyes to see them!

Time for reader questions

December 2nd, 2015 by

You got questions? I’ve got answers. Well, at least opinions. And oftentimes, the GITS community will weigh in with some great insights.

While you’re at it, check out the archives of reader questions I’ve aggregated during the nearly 8 year run of this blog. Over 300 questions and answers.

Screenwriting. Craft. Business. Whatever. The transom is open. Feel free to lob your questions this way. Happy to give you my two cents.

Reader Question: Is it possible to have a screenplay without a specific Antagonist character?

October 20th, 2015 by

Open Forum question from Eve Montana:

I’m having trouble locating my antagonist and character goal in my character-driven movie. In “Juno”, her goal is to find suitable parents for her unborn baby, but who is the antagonist?

And coincidentally a similar question via email from Jeff:

I have a question regarding the villain character in a screenplay. Many screenwriting books, articles, and blogs suggest that a screenplay needs to have a Villain. This villain needs to be a formidable opponent that stands directly in the way of our hero obtaining his goal. Well, some concepts I come up with don’t really have a “villain” per se. According to everything I read this could be wrong. But I feel like there are a lot of successful movies that don’t have classic villains — Who’s the villain in 40 Year Old Virgin? Knocked Up? Juno? A lot of movies don’t have this maniacal evil villain working against the hero. Sometimes the world/society/circumstance is the villain. Or our hero is his own villain. Or maybe I’m just missing it?

The short answer is no – your script does not need to have a specific Nemesis / Antagonist / Villain character. However all movies must have some sort of Protagonist opposition dynamic – or else you have no conflict. And if you have no conflict, you likely have no drama.

Some background. My working theory re screenplays is that if Plot equals Structure, then Character equals Function. Every character in a screenplay should have a function tied to the narrative. In most movies, there are five primary functions filled by these archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, and Trickster.

One way of looking at the Nemesis function is per Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow:

It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses- and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster’s body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature. Blindly he strives against the salutary dogma of original sin, which is yet so prodigiously true. Yes, he even hesitates to admit the conflict of which he is so painfully aware.

The shadow is everything in us that is unconscious and undeveloped, those aspects of our psyche which we repress and deny. Most often these represent our ‘dark’ impulses, however as long as it exists only in our unconscious, we experience it indirectly — through dreams, underlying and unknown intentions behind our actions and thoughts, and so on.

Jung asserted this:

The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict.

Therefore in any movie story where the Protagonist is involved in some sort of significant transformation-journey, the Nemesis can be seen as the physicalization of the shadow, an expression of the Protagonist’s need to become conscious of, connect with, and oftentimes combat their dark, hidden impulses and aspects.

In other words, psychologically speaking, if you ask this question of the story you are writing — “Why does this story have to happen to this Protagonist right now?” a Jungian response might be, “Because the Protagonist must now deal with their Shadow.”

The classic cinematic example of this is in the movie Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back when Luke Skywalker ventures deep into the swamps of Degobah to encounter his Nemesis Darth Vader — only to sever Vader’s head off Vader’s body, his helmet explodes, revealing that the face within is Luke’s. In other words, Luke has within him the dark side of the Force as well as light side – just as all humans have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ instincts. As Jung would argue, we can not move toward any approximation of wholeness or unity unless we engage all of the aspects of our psyche and that includes those parts of who we are that we fear and repress.

Now notice I used the term physicalization, not “personification.” That is because in a screenplay, an oppositional dynamic to the Protagonist does not need to be provided by a sentient being. An example of a movie that doesn’t have a personal Nemesis character is Cast Away (2000), where the Protagonist Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) is stranded for four years alone on a remote island. In this story, geography and weather generate the primary conflict in the life of the Protagonist by creating his isolation and standing in the way of his escape — it is those elements that provide the oppositional dynamic.

Per the question re Juno: Who’s the Nemesis in that story? Here’s my character archetype breakdown of that movie:

Protagonist – Juno
Attractor – Paulie
Mentor – Juno’s father / Juno’s step-mother / The baby
Trickster – Mark Loring (dark) / Vanessa Loring (light)

And the Nemesis? Let’s look at the two big questions that typically help to define the Protagonist character:

What does Juno want? To make sure her baby finds a good home.
What does Juno need? To be a teenager.

In my view of the movie, all that snarky slanguage that Juno uses and her cooler-than-cool attitude she adopts is a response to her shadow, arising from this key factor — she was rejected by her mother:

She [her mother] lives on a Havasu reservation in Arizona and three replacement kids. Oh, and she inexplicably mails me a cactus every Valentine’s Day. And I’m like, “Thanks a heap, Coyote Ugly. This cactus gram stings worse than your abandonment.” [P. 16]

Juno has never recovered from that hurt. This one side of dialogue is the only overt sign of that pain, but if you look at Juno from a macro perspective, throughout the first two acts of the movie, it’s clear – at least to me – that she has tried her best to jump past and out of her youth into adulthood. Over and over, she attempts to distinguish herself from her peers — through her attire, habits, language and, her likes / dislikes (e.g., weird horror movies, early 80s punk bands). In my view, she has ‘grown up’ quickly to put as much distance as she can from the experience of her mother’s rejection, and therefore as a means to avoid dealing with that pain. And so I think what she needs is to give up her pseudo-adult ‘mask,’ and be what by rights she ought to be: a teenage girl.

I believe this is borne out in the Denouement: We see her riding a bike (not driving a car), pulling out a guitar to sing a silly little duet with Paulie (innocence), then chastely kisses Paulie on the cheek. In contrast to the opening scene where we see her dropping her panties and initiating sex with Paulie, the whole tone of the ending scene is spring, innocence, and youth — she’s a happy teenager.

So I would see the Nemesis in Juno being the mask of her adult-self, eventually ripped away when Mark Loring – an adult who ends up acting like a child – betrays her, and the very real and very raw experience of childbirth.

Similarly in 40 Year Old Virgin, the nemesis isn’t a person, it’s a state of being: Andy’s virginity. And in Knocked Up, the nemesis is Ben’s immaturity: It provides opposition in that Ben has to overcome his infantile instincts to prove to be a worthy father and Alison has to get over her fear of Ben’s immaturity to learn to trust and love him.

So again, a screenplay does not need a real, live, human Nemesis, but it does require some sort of Protagonist opposition dynamic, whether it’s physical — like being stranded on an island — psychological — like immaturity — or a state of being — like virginity.

That said, a word of caution: Most movies have strong Nemesis characters, ones that are human and do act overtly in opposition to a Protagonist. To this point, Jeff emailed me later to say this:

BTW — I posed this question to a friend who just wrote a book on screenwriting.

His response — There are those movies, I don’t suggest you write them.

Probably two reasons for that response: (1) Movies without actual human Nemesis characters are harder to write because the central conflict is almost by definition more difficult to locate and steer without a specific Nemesis; (2) Studios feel a lot more comfortable with movies where there is a strong central Nemesis.

For more of my thoughts on the Nemesis character:

How to build a powerful Nemesis?

Does a story absolutely need an antagonist?

The psychopathology of heroism

How about you? Do you think a screenplay needs a Nemesis or can it function without one?

[Originally posted March 23, 2010]

Reader Question: How do you deal with disappointment?

October 14th, 2015 by

Question via the blog from Eric Harris:

How do you deal with disappointment?

Eric went on to elaborate:

Since you seem to always have a healthy attitude towards the craft, I thought you’d be a perfect person to ask.

Of course, there are different scenarios a writer can face:

A writer’s script is not as good as they thought it was and gets brutalized in coverage. And it’s painful to face this realization.

Or they had their hopes up, but the rug gets pulled out from under them in the 11th hour…

Desperation about the ticking clock…. life’s passing the writer by, while their friends are moving up in non-entertainment fields which have a more step-by-step path.

Family and friend pressure, subtle or not so subtle.

Getting replaced on a job; calls back become less frequent from agents, producers who were hot to return phone calls initially…..

Eric, I fear you have just scratched the surface. For as a writer winding their way into the business…

You can fall under the influence of lousy agents.

You can get lost in the malaise of writing Act Two.

You will have to come to grips with surviving script notes meetings.

You will confront sweepstakes pitching, prewrites, and one-step deals.

You will take meetings with shitty executives.

You will deal with a bunch of industry people who are weather vanes.

You will get rewritten.

You will suffer the recurring indignity of ‘hurry up and wait’.

You will inevitably have someone beat you to the punch on a script you are writing.

You will get your hopes up, then not land the gig.

You will have to learn sometimes to say yes to a crap project.

You will get a movie made only it will suck.

You will almost assuredly sometimes just get it wrong.

You will experience the highs and more often lows of living and writing in Los Angeles.

You will meet head-on the stark reality that movies are primarily a director’s medium.

You will possibly get screwed out of money because of stupid legal issues.

You will go on strike and not be able to work for a living.

You will run the risk of losing hope when faced with the enormous odds against success.

You will live with the constant knowledge that movies don’t owe anybody a living.

And you know that at some point, you will fuck up.

In other words, if you choose a writer’s life, you will confront disappointment. You will confront it routinely… deeply… often.

Disappointment will impact you so much, it will become your blood type. The name of your softball team. The type of car you drive. Your astrological sign.

As screenwriter Audrey Wells said, “One day, you will sell your screenplay, and then your problems will begin.”

Which is to say you absolutely must come up with some coping skills in dealing with disappointment… and that leads me to the point of your question.

The first thing I will say is to ask a question: Do you love the act of writing? I mean really love it? That doesn’t mean you can’t actually loathe it from time to time, days or even weeks where the very act of dragging your derriere onto chair to write is an actual physically debilitating effort.

Yes, there are those times. However if a majority of your experience is to delight in the hard work combined with the magic which comes with the craft… where a sudden turn of phrase brings you joy… when a character speaks up and unloads the perfect line of dialogue for you… when a scene you are writing so catches you up, you can’t help but laugh or gasp or cry… where you look up and discover it is hours later than you thought, your story having swallowed you for a morning, afternoon, or night…

If you have those type of moments with your writing and they truly enliven you, then there is always that. You can always write.

You cannot control the Hollywood Powers That Be. But you can control your simple day-to-day existence as a writer.

The second thing I will suggest: Find a writers group. Nobody understands the ups, downs, ins, and outs of being a writer than other writers. So when your script gets a great review on the Black List website or you finally finish a script after the 11th draft… you celebrate with your peers and they with you. You celebrate their successes as well. When things go South, you are there to support each other, even if it’s just to listen to someone’s tale of woe, and offer them a pat on the back, and a consoling, “Ain’t that the shits.” One thing I always do in the classes I teach is encourage the participants to keep the thing going as a writers group. I’m happy to say dozens of them are ongoing, including three women who took a class with me in 2003 and still support each other as a collective!

The third thing is to find your spiritual center. Religious or otherwise, realize that our time on this planet is but a nanosecond in comparison to the universe. Fame and fortune are fleeting. But who we are as human beings and how we are with others, through acts of charity and kindness, honesty and courage, and always seeking the path of love and respect, that is the way that brings us into harmony with the Real World. Disappointments come and go, but who we are at the Core Of Our Being…. no one can take that away if we don’t let them. A life dedicated to the Greater Good and Authentic Living is far more powerful and fulfilling than anything so ephemeral as a spec script sale or TV pilot deal. Sure, we can strive for that and celebrate those victories, but those other ultimately other-dependent. How we choose to live our lives and the qualities we bring to our interchanges with our fellow creatures here on Earth… we can control that and find great meaning there.

Bottom line know thyself. If you have an iron stomach and steel backbone, capable of handling disappointments, small and large, knowing they will wash over you like the daily tides, combined with the joy of writing, the companionship of fellow writers, and a spiritual sense of self, that should be enough to sustain you through times of trials and tribulations…

In which case, go for it! What can compare to giving voice to Creativity? Tapping into your unique perspective of the world and seeing where the characters of your imagination take you and your words? It offers an incomparable experience of life, this path we choose to…

Go into the story… and find the animals!

How about you, reader? How do you deal with disappointment as a writer? I’d love to read your thoughts.