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.

Reader Question: Do characters “own” a scene?

September 3rd, 2015 by

Reader question from Nick Whittle:

I just wanted to gain some clarity here – within a scene, am I right to think that one particular character “owns” the scene, or drives it? Not necessarily the protagonist but certainly only one character at a time in contained within the scene…and in doing so speaks the driving lines?

Perhaps as an appendage to that, if one character does own the scene is it entirely plausible that the ownership can pass to another actor within the scene or should rule of thumb be – “This is X’s scene. X is going to take this scene to where he/she/it wants and Y and Z will follow.”

Nick, I like the language — owning a scene — and there will be times in which one character so dominates an interchange with other characters, it will certainly feel like they own it. Indeed from a narrative standpoint in order to drive the plot, there may very well be scenes in which one character forces the action and in effect owns it.

However in reflecting on the idea of owning a scene, I think it’s more valuable to think about it as a struggle between two or more characters, each of whom is determined to ‘own’ the moment. When you have a situation like that, the ‘ownership’ of the scene is up for grabs, and that’s great because the script reader will not know what the disposition of the scene will be. That uncertainty, the power play between characters, makes for great drama and great entertainment.

For example, consider the interrogation scene between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight:

Who owns this scene? Certainly Batman is in a power position. Joker is in custody. Batman is stronger than Joker. He uses physical violence to try to extract information from Joker. However Joker is aware that Batman – by his own code – can’t kill him. Moreover Joker knows where Harvey Dent and Rachel are. So even though from the looks of what transpires, it appears as though Batman has the upper hand, in actuality Joker ends up ‘owning’ the scene.

And this example points out a key point: When writing a scene, consider each character and what their respective goals are – in that moment. That is, every character in a scene will have a goal. Some of them are bigger than others, some requiring more action than others, but each character ought to have something in mind – a want – in every scene.

Why is this important? Because it provides dynamism to the scene. If Character A, Character B, and Character C each have their own goal, the writer can explore the tension between their respective goals. And what can naturally arise is something drama requires: Conflict.

Here’s another scene that comes to mind: In The Shawshank Redemption, when Andy meets with Norton, the prison’s warden with information Andy has learned which can prove he is innocent of the murders for which he has been convicted [scene begins 2:37]:

Andy’s goal: Release from prison.
Norton’s goal: Keep Andy in prison.

Diametrically opposed goals.

Andy conveys the ‘confession’ by Elmo Blatch as related to him by Tommy. In theory, that would suggest he may be able to ‘own’ the scene. After all, the Good Book says, “The truth shall set you free.”

However Norton uses logic to try to stop Andy in his tracks. When that fails to dissuade Andy, he consigns Andy to solitary confinement. And then this:

With the assassination of Tommy, it would seem that Norton ‘owns’ Andy. However Andy has other things in mind:

Which raises another point: The idea of who owns who is a fluid dynamic. Character A may prevail in one scene, however it may turn out the Character B actually ‘owns’ the situation in the larger scheme of things. In other words, one character may win the battle… but lose the war.

This concept of ‘owning’ a scene summons up a power struggle and that may tend to evoke out and out physicality as the plane on which the ‘battle’ is fought. But what about a battle of wits? We see this type of struggle in comedies all the time.

Here is the second half of a scene from the movie The Goodbye Girl. In the run-up to what the excerpt featured below, Paula (Marsha Mason) has laid down some ground rules about sharing the apartment with this stranger. Check out the response by Elliot (Richard Dreyfus):

She owns the first part of the scene. He owns the second. They end in a draw. And the battle lines are drawn for Act Two and beyond.

By the way, this scene is a perfect example of how ‘ownership’ of a scene can pass from one character to the next as per your second question.

So while there may be scenes in which one character clearly ‘owns’ it, I think the concept is more valuable to a writer when we tether it to conflict, a struggle between characters, each of whom has a goal, and the scene becomes the ‘battleground’ for the playing out of those goals.

GITS readers, what are your thoughts on the matter? Do you find the concept of ‘owning’ a scene helpful? Do you have other good examples of scenes in which characters struggle for ‘ownership’ of the moment? Head to comments and let me know what you think.

Reader Question: How to balance screenwriting theory and the actual writing?

August 27th, 2015 by

From Traci Peterson:

I’m an intuitive/organic writer discovering the sometimes overwhelming scope of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung’s influences on character and story.

Any suggestions on how to balance the two in order to get the first script down?

It can be overwhelming, especially on the front end of the process where a writer studies various theories, paradigms, and approaches to the craft. This is a necessary thing, at least for most writers, but how to make sense of all that information and intellectual stimuli? And then more to your point, how to balance all of those ideas with the actual practice of writing a story?

First off, I need to lay out my standard line: “There is no right way to write.” Every writer is different. Every story is different. Blake Snyder may work for Writer A, but not at all for Writer B, whereas Robert McKee may work for Writer C, but seem like a foreign language for Writer D.

Whenever you hear talk about a “writer’s voice,” this is part of that process. You learn what you learn, sort it out, pull together what works for you, and that becomes a key part of your voice.

With that frame, let me offer two words of advice on the matter. The first is a macro take, what we may call “A Writer’s Odyssey.” The second is a micro perspective, what we may call “Write Here, Write Now.”


The very first moment we open a book, read an article or take a class about screenwriting, we begin an odyssey, our own Hero’s Journey. Along the way, we may experience something like the stages below:

Some things we learn, stick. Others, don’t. Some things we learn, help. Others, hurt. We cross thresholds, we get knocked back. We feel high, we feel low. Things make sense, things confuse the hell out of us. But all along, we are learning how to think about the craft.

Along the way, we are also writing. Much of what we write doesn’t work. Some of it may downright suck. But the more we learn and process what we learn, the more we write and process what we write, we advance along in our odyssey, hopefully getting better as screenwriters.

Now I don’t believe this odyssey ever ends, we are always on the road to discovery. However whenever we write a script, I like to think of myself as having gone around the circle and wound my way back home. It’s important to claim that, to assert to yourself, “I’ve learned what I’ve learned, know what I know, I feel passion for this story, and I’m going to write the hell out of it.” You are home now. Don’t worry about what you’ve learned in the past or what you will learn in the future, just be here now as a writer in direct contact with your story in the present.

[By the way, after we finish a script, we go back out on the odyssey, learning more stuff until we come back home to write the next one.]


All that stuff you’ve learned, all the theories, paradigms and approaches, you can use them in prep-writing as you wrangle your story. But along the way of prepping your story, you increasingly need to trust your gut. Great stories require all aspects of the writing psyche, but perhaps nothing as important than your instincts. Ideally as you work your way through story prep, your gut will be taking over the decision-making process.

Once you type FADE IN, it’s time to take all that theory, all those approaches, all those paradigms, and set them over there. Clear them out of your consciousness.

Be. Here. Now. Just you. Your story universe. Your characters.

Engage all that narrative material directly, then —

Write here. Write now.

Naturally your theories, paradigms and approaches will creep into your mind. Don’t freak out. They’re trying to help you, they’re your friends and they’re useful in their own way. Just very nicely tell them, “Hey, theories. Thanks for dropping by. But you know what? I’m gonna go with my gut right now. You remember, we’ve talked about this. You were there to help me during prep. You’ll be there to help me after I get done with this draft. But right now, I’ve got to write now. So why don’t you and approaches and paradigms go off and play a few rounds of miniature golf or something. I’ll catch up with you in a month or two. Ciao!”

When you are page-writing, that’s all you’re doing. Engaging your creativity with the story universe and those characters, a direct experience of each scene in the here-and-now.

Dare I say it? You go… into… the… story… and write what emerges.

Now when I say to tell your theories and what-not, you’ll be calling on them in the assessment part of the rewrite stage, I mean that. You will want to apply that stuff in helping you pull the story together. Use them in prep, use them in analyzing your drafts and figuring out what to do in rewrites. But when you are page-writing, go with your gut. And write here, write now.

How about it, GITS readers? What Traci asks is a hugely important question. How do you find the balance between screenwriting theory and the actual writing?

[Originally posted April 18, 2012]

UPDATE: Subsequent to this entry, I did another post with relevance to the subject: “Don’t think… feel.” Here is that post:

“I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads ‘Don’t think!’ You must never think at the typewriter — you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway.” — Ray Bradbury

I stumbled across this quote recently and it struck me as profoundly right.

I do a lot of thinking about the craft of screenwriting. I come by it honestly. I never went to film school or had any formal training before I broke into the business, so I had to do whatever I could to get my act together to sustain a career as a screenwriter. Moreover I had trained to become an academic, albeit in a completely different field, before I took my “year off from school” which subsequently became the rest of my life.

Put those two together and the result is applying a significant amount of my gray matter to reading, studying, analyzing, questions, concerns, ideas and concepts related to writing screenplays.

When I began teaching screenwriting in my spare time about a decade ago, that only intensified my thought process. Writing is one thing. Teaching writing is quite another. The former is pretty much just ‘doing.’ The latter requires one to… well… think about the doing, then articulate that process in a coherent form which can be conveyed to students.

In the ten years or so I’ve been teaching, I have created dozens of classes and taught well over one hundred of them to over a thousand writers. All of that required considerable thinking.

And yet while I’m proud of the approach I have developed which I teach — grounded in solid theory and years of experience working as a professional in Hollywood, not formula, not pap, a comprehensive, character-based approach to the craft — when I send writers off to write their scripts or accompany them in workshops, I always make a point similar to Bradbury: No matter the books you’ve read or theories you’ve ingested, no matter what you’ve come up with in your prep work, whatever your thinking has brought you to, you must be willing to trust your characters, follow your feelings as you write. Because writing is a journey of discovery no matter how much thought you’ve put into it.

Now I would hasten to add a proviso: Bradbury was a genius. He was destined to be a writer, perhaps even born with a writer’s soul. So it was probably natural and easy for him to ‘cut off’ his intellect and trust his gut when writing. Those of us who exist on a more terrestrial plane may not be so lucky and will have to rely at least somewhat on our intellect as we write.

But it’s that last point that really grabbed me: Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway.

Wow. I love that. Because it describes in succinct fashion the very process I try to convey here on the blog, in my teaching and in my own writing.

Learn the craft as best you can through study and analysis. Immerse yourself in your story universe during prep-writing. Brainstorm. Character development. Plotting. All of it. That should engage both your intellect and your heart.

But when you hit FADE IN, default to your emotions. At the end of the day, you want a script reader to feel something. What better way to ensure that than by feeling something ourselves?

Look, as I say ad nauseum, there is no right way to write. But consider the potential of Bradbury’s imperative when you launch into writing page: Don’t think! Feel. If you’ve done sufficient prep work, the intellect with be there as a sort of ‘subtext’ to your feelings.

And that combination could be the ideal one for your creative process.

Every writer has to figure out for him or herself, the balance between theory and writing. However while not diminishing the importance of screenwriting theory, at the end of the day generating authentic human emotion in a reader is going to go a lot further in selling your script than writing principles and practices.

Reader Question: “What about screenplay page count?”

August 18th, 2015 by

A reader question from jmay:

We’ve all heard a page a minute as long as we’ve been writing. We’ve also heard Courier New is the correct font, but there’s this thing called Courier Final Draft. The two can result in a 20 page difference in a full length screenplay! So what’s the actual industry standard these days and the closest to “page a minute?”

Two questions here: (1) What’s the deal with page count nowadays? (2) Can screenwriters get away with cheating our page count?

Re the first question: I touched on a related bit of business in this recent post.

In years past, I used to teach that the average scene was 2 pages long. Since a typical script clocked in at 120 pages, then you could basically expect to see around 60 scenes in a script.

However, I think that has changed. I don’t have statistics to bear this out, but it just feels to me like scenes are getting shorter – and as a result, there are more of them in contemporary movies. Perhaps between 75-90 scenes per script.

Today when I write, instead of keeping in mind a 2-page per average scene, I’m thinking 1-and-a-half pages per scene.

[Those numbers will vary according to the genre of the script, the style the writer chooses to take in telling the story, and other factors.]

This is all part of a trend starting in the late 90s, where movies are getting shorter. Here’s a USA Today article from 2002 that tracked the trend even then:

Films have been getting shorter since 1997, when the average movie was 109 minutes long. This year, the average is 103, according to box office firm Nielsen EDI.

As the poster child of short movies, the article cites Men in Black II which clocked in at a mere 82 minutes.

Ironically, of course, we’ve got all these big budget movies like The Dark Knight and Transformers: Rise of the Fallen which fill out 150 minutes.

So what the hell is going on?

My guess is that page count is now more genre and format dependent than ever. For example, animation is super-expensive to produce. Therefore, it behooves the filmmakers to make shorter movies. Here are some run times of recent animated films:

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs — 94 minutes
Up — 96 minutes

There’s a similar thing re family movies. They’re shorter because:

(A) The thinking is that kids have shorter attention spans.
(B) Therefore the studios can get away with shorter (read: less expensive) movies.

Aliens in the Attic — 86 minutes
G-Force — 88 minutes
Shorts — 89 minutes

Then there are your basic comedies. Aimed at teens and adults, their run times tend to be just a bit longer.

The Hangover — 100 minutes
Land of the Lost — 101 minutes
The Proposal — 108 minutes

Sci-fi and fantasy can run even longer, primarily because they have more story to cover.

Terminator Salvation — 115 minutes
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra — 118 minutes
Star Trek — 127 minutes

Same as ‘smart’ movies. You know, ones with actual plots? Aimed at ‘adults’ (anyone over 35).

The Soloist — 117 minutes
The Taking of Pelham 123 — 121 minutes
Duplicity — 125 minutes

Then there are the huge spectacle / event movies. They can run really long. Why? Because being the 800 pound gorillas they are with their $100-200M budgets, they do it because they can. Plus, the studios believe that these viewers want a bigger bang for their buck.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince — 153 minutes
And the aforementioned Transformers 2 (150 minutes).

My take on this re screenwriting:

(1) You should be cognizant of the genre. If it’s a comedy, action, or family movie, aim for 90-100 pages. If it’s a drama, thriller, or a movie aimed at adults, aim for 100-110 pages.

(2) A 120 page script nowadays is probably perceived as being a ‘longish’ script.

(3) Even though some movies may run in the 80-90 minute range, I would be hesitant to write a script less than 90 pages long. I don’t care what genre it is, if I read a script that’s 90 pages or less, I immediately think — “The story must be thin.” It’s easier to cut material than be forced to generate more to ‘pad’ the story later.

But the bottom line is this: Let the story dictate the page count. If it needs 120 pages to be told well and you’re convinced you’ve cut it to the bone, let it be 120 pages. Don’t obsess over page count. Obsess over story and characters.

Re cheating page count, wow, things have changed. I remember an old screenwriter telling me that back in the (analog) day, he’d squeeze more into his scripts by repeating page numbers. [On his manual typewriter!] In fact, there were certain numbers he felt were ‘safe’ to repeat. I don’t remember all of them, but P. 73 was one.

Then came computers and screenwriting software. And there are all sorts of cheats. Different font size. Text line spacing. Blank line spacing. Margins. How many lines allowed per page. Where, as jmay suggests, you can change the page count by 20 pages.

Look. I know this area really well. As I’m always trying to save lines because I write long, then trim and trim and trim.

I confess I have used cheats before. But you pay a price.

First, you put a lot more black ink on the page and that has a psychological affect on a reader. They like to see white space because it means they have less to read. When they see page after page crammed with text, it gives them an immediate headache.

Second, you’re not giving yourself an accurate read per your plot points, your script may say that the end of Act Two happens on P. 90, but if you’ve squeezed the margins, font size, etc, what if your page count is actually P. 98? Or P. 100? If I knew that plot point happened on P. 100, my impulse would be to look for trims, tighten up the script. But with cheats, I may feel satisfied with what I’ve written.

So while a screenwriter can get away with cheating page count, I don’t advise it.

Trust me on this: You can always trim. Always.
And 99% of the time that benefits a script, making it a cleaner, leaner, tighter read.

REQUEST TO SCRIPT READERS: I know we have some who read this blog. What’s your advice about page count? Does a script vary in length per its genre?

[Originally posted August 23, 2009]

Reader Question: During rewrites, how can I tell if something is lacking in my story?

August 11th, 2015 by

Reader question via Twitter from @SupportTheCos:

Cosmo, by lacking, I take it you mean this: Is something missing from my story? Is it not all it could be? Is there something more I could do with the story, but I’m just not seeing it?

Good questions. I’ll oftentimes have that concern when assessing a scene I have written. And experience tells me if that question arises in my mind, it’s probably right: There is more I can do with it. Or on a macro level, is there a hole in the plot I’m missing?

Of course, we can be blind to any of that. As you suggest, Cosmo, when we work on a story for a long time, we can get so close to it, we don’t have the kind of objectivity to make an informed judgment.

So my first piece of advice is a simple one: Once you finish your draft, set aside your story for at least 2 weeks. You need that time and distance away from the story to generate a set of ‘fresh’ eyes.

Indeed, why not use that time to research another story. Brainstorm. Character development. Plotting. This can serve as a kind of sorbet to cleanse the mental palate and create even more space between you and the first story.

After your break, sit down and read your script all the way through, start to finish. Have part of your mind attuned to this very question: Is something lacking? That clean read should give you a good indication if the story is close to being fully realized or not.

One particular area to focus on is theme. When I read another writer’s script and come away with a sense of it lacking depth or emotional resonance, it almost always revolves around themes. Either the writer didn’t zero in on a central theme and the story lacks a sense of coherent meaning or they didn’t explore sub-themes which are there in potential, just not realized.

How to explore themes? Dig into your characters. The central theme is often tethered to the Protagonist and their psychological journey. Sub-themes can emerge from the subplot relationships of other characters to the Protagonist.

Perhaps the single best way to determine if your story is lacking that special something is to have others read it. If you have a writers group, start there. Consider using some pro readers like those who provide script coverage at the Black List. They are affordable and a good way to get a sense of where your story stands.

But circling back, if you are asking yourself that question — Does my story lack something — that’s likely a good indication it is. Of course, that means more work rewriting, however the fact you even asked that question is a sign of your maturity as a writer, instead of just accepting the draft as is.

How about you, GITS readers? Any suggestions for Cosmo? If so, please head to comments with your thoughts and ideas.

To read over 300 reader questions and my responses, go here.

Reader Question: What do I do if I’m less interested in my Protagonist than other characters?

August 6th, 2015 by

This is actually a question that arose in the current prep workshop I am leading. My response:

It’s kind of ironic that in many movies, the Protagonist is not necessarily the most interesting character. Per your references, Lecter is more interesting to most folks I would guess than Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. Sam Gamgee over Frodo and certainly Gollum over them both. But that does not necessarily translate into them functioning as the story’s Protagonist. They can, of course, but not required.

You concern points to several significant issues. As it’s late at night, let me hit on one of them. We can return to the subject if you remind me tomorrow.

What do I do if I’m more interested in another character as compared to my Protagonist?

This is not easily answered. For example, it is critical if our story has a Nemesis character in the classic sense of the word that we make them a worthy foe. More often than not, that means making them multidimensional, fascinating characters. In that process, we can find ourselves much more intrigued by them than our Protagonist. That goes with other characters as well… Mentor, Trickster, Attractor.

I remember going up for the project Jonny Quest, a rewrite of an existing script. The script was really well written. One problem: It was clear the writer had a much greater affinity for Race Bannon than Jonny. That’s a problem when the project is called… you know… JONNY QUEST!

So what do in that situation? Acknowledge you have done a good job in digging into the non-P character. Good for you! Now do the same to your P. You have to find what is compelling about the P. It’s up to you to make their storyline at least equally important.

A big clue: As noted in Lecture 1, the Protagonist is generally the character who goes through the most significant metamorphosis. Nemesis characters often don’t change at all. That should give you a leg up with your P character.

Make that metamorphosis damn interesting!

That’s why Clarice Starling works as well as she does in TSOTL: She’s plagued by nightmares based on a horror background re the death of her father and the mystery of what happened on that Montana farm.

Consider the words of screenwriter Ted Tally who wrote the script adaptation for TSOTL:

“And then, for reasons I’m not even sure of, I felt very moved, and still do, by Clarice Starling. By her courage and vulnerability–and I probably respond more to courage in a main character than any other quality. She’s in a male world, and she’s a student, and she’s orphaned… I was just deeply moved by her. And Thomas Harris had so artfully worked in mythic underpinnings–it just had this feeling that there’s the orphaned young woman making her way in the world, and there’s the good stepfather in Crawford and the evil stepfather who’s Lecter who are taking on her education. That’s a huge part of the story, in fact it’s the emotional heart of the whole story; her search for a missing father and her attempt to replaced that void which is never going to go away. The whole thing of saving the lamb and being able to save Catherine Martin is all tied up with her inability to save her own father when she was a child.”

Note how much affection he had for Clarice, how much compassion he felt for her. I’m sure he loved writing Lecter, but he still found a way to connect with the story’s Protagonist. And it’s largely through her metamorphosis.

My advice: Dig deeper into your Protagonist. You may not feel much of a connection to her because you don’t know her well enough yet, haven’t peeled back enough layers of her psyche to uncover cool, even surprising aspects of who she is.

For more of Ted Tally’s thoughts on TSOTL, go here.

What do you do when you find yourself working with a Protagonist who is less interesting than other characters?

Reader Question: Does one character “own” each scene?

August 5th, 2015 by

Question via email from Nick Whittle:

I just wanted to gain some clarity here – within a scene, am I right to think that one particular character “owns” the scene, or drives it? Not necessarily the protagonist but certainly only one character at a time in contained within the scene…and in doing so speaks the driving lines?

Addendum: If one character does own the scene is it entirely plausible that the ownership can pass to another actor within the scene or should rule of thumb be – “This is X’s scene. X is going to take this scene to where he/she/it wants and Y and Z will follow.”

Nick, I like the way you think. Nothing worse than a scene where characters have no goals… and therefore there is no drama due to the lack of conflicting goals… and the scene just lies there flat as a proverbial pancake. Like what was the point of that?

So my short response to your question is it’s a good way to think about a scene: Which character has the strongest sense of purpose in that very moment? What is their goal? What do they want, both in terms of the overall narrative and right here, right now? If one character is heavily motivated and has a clear purpose in mind as compared to other characters, then it’s likely the first character will, as you say, drive the scene.

And that’s fine, sometimes you need scenes like that. However per my first comment, generally speaking it’s beneficial for each character in a scene to have their own goal. This is one of the easiest, most direct ways to achieve conflict – when goals collide. In theory at least, you’ve got a scene in which different characters take the steering wheel (to carry your metaphor further) and try to maneuver events to fit their goal. Now you’ve got a vibrant scene, some good back and forth, and a central question: Who will win out?

Take the scene in The Shawshank Redemption in which Andy, having just heard about a prisoner who has in effect confessed to the murder of his wife and her lover, goes to the warden’s office (it starts at 2:37 of the clip below):

Andy’s goal: Use this information to obtain his release from prison.
Norton’s goal: To keep Andy in prison.

Track the trajectory of the scene.

Beginning: We enter the scene late after Andy has conveyed the information to Norton. So the backstory of the scene would have had Andy driving it. Now Norton attempts to regain control by undercutting the validity of the prisoner’s confession.

Pivot: “How can you be so obtuse?”

Middle: With this comment by Andy, the dynamics of the scene switch with Andy pushing back against Norton, leading to a tonal shift in the warden’s attitude, declaring “This meeting is over.” In other words, he tries to gain control over the moment.

Pivot: “Sir, if I were ever to get out, I would never mentioned what goes on in here.”

End: Andy attempts to regain control by appealing to Norton’s sense of logic, but this declaration only incites Norton who quite demonstrably takes over the rest of the scene, calling in the guards, and telling them, “Solitary, a month.”

It’s a dynamic scene with both characters attempting to wrest the ‘steering wheel’ from each other.

So in answer to your second question, yes, a character may enter a scene ‘driving’ the action, then other characters may seize control, and indeed, who is in charge can shift back and forth.

But how to best shape the scene is to ground it in the characters and their respective goals, their sense of purpose, their personalities, their strategies.

By the way, this is another reason why using character archetypes — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — is a great lens through which to look at scenes. Any character, no matter their primary archetype, can don the ‘mask’ of any archetype in any scene.

For instance in the scene above, Norton wears a Mentor mask in the beginning, using his cold logic to try to convince Andy this news he’s discovered is really meaningless. In the middle, Norton switches to a Trickster mask, turning away from Mentor mode – and presumed ally – toward enemy. In the end of the scene, Norton reveals his true colors by revealing his Nemesis face through his harsh treatment of Andy. Yet another way to look at how to craft scenes.

One final thought in the form of an observation by Elaine May and Mike Nichols, deriving from their days as a comedy duo and their sketch work: “Every scene is either a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation.” In all three cases, we can see how what we’ve talked about here comes into play: What are the character’s goals? Who drives the scene? What masks do they wear to achieve their aims?

Great stuff and thanks for the question, Nick!

Readers, if you have any thoughts on the subject, please head to comments and opine away! How about this: What other movie scenes are examples of characters ‘driving’ the action?

Reader Question: What should I do if a project sells that is similar to a script I’m writing?

August 4th, 2015 by

From an Anonymous GITS Reader:

Big fan of your site. Easily one of the best screenwriter sites out there for info and inspiration. Anyways, I wanted to get your opinion on something. I was putting the finishing touches on an outline of my current script – almost finished with 1st draft now – when a pitch was sold with the same general idea…

Now I’m used to hearing about parallel development so I pretty much knew that this was going to kill any chance of a sale. However, since I am an unrepped writer my main goal is to get reads from agents and managers so I was curious if you think my target “audience” would still request this script even though a similar idea has recently been sold.

First of all, let me share this sentiment with AGR and anybody else out there who has worked up a story only to see another project with a similar premise get set up:

It totally sucks!

I’ve had it happen more than once. There’s nothing quite like the gut-churning sensation you get when you open the trades and see the project you have been working on just sold to a studio. It gets to the point where you almost hate to read about script deals, always that nagging fear that through some hideous twist of fate, you’re about to discover you just got beat to the finish line by some other writer.

In other words, I feel your pain.

Before I get to your specific question, let me also add this: The simple fact is that this cruel experience is going to happen. You can almost bank on it. There are so many people writing screenplays, graphic novels, comic books, books, pitches, and so on… and only so many good ideas. Steel yourself for the inevitable disappointment.

Fortunately, AGR, you have three things working in your favor:

#1: As we have discussed many times on GITS, Hollywood movie studios operate upon the ‘similar but different’ principle. They are loathe to greenlight completely original stories because they represent big risks (unless, of course, it’s a James Cameron or Christopher Nolan project, their track records effectively minimizing the risk). That risk factor (read: fear of flop) is one major reason why the studios tend to look for stories that are ‘similar’ to other stories. Everything from remakes to sequels to familiar subject matter — those represent a smaller risk because since the original movie was a success, therefore, the logic goes, this new version should stand a good chance of being successful, too. So, AGR, if your script is similar but different than a project which recently sold, that fact could actually help you get your script read. Perverse logic, I know, but hey, if Hollywood knows anything at all, it’s perversion.

#2: Here’s another perverse thing: The mere fact that you generated an original story idea that happens to hew closely to that of a project that recently sold suggests that your creative instincts are in line with what the movie studios are looking for. One of my agents told me this after two ideas on our possible ‘to script’ list sold within a month. When you first hear it, you think, “Well, he’s just saying that to make me feel better.” But when you step back from the blunt trauma of seeing two your ideas snatched away, you realize that yes, you are in sync with the current buyer’s marketplace. So, AGR, as rotten as you may feel, hopefully you can see the broader picture and realize that the sale of this other project actually validates your own creative instincts. Which leads to the third point:

#3: Despite their hard line against reading unsolicited manuscripts, managers and agents actually want, even need to read new writers. And most of them aren’t reading a script with the hope of selling just that script, rather they’re hoping to find a writer they can nurture into a writing career. 10% of a single script sale is one thing. 10% of multiple years of script sales, pitch sales, OWA gigs, TV writing is a whole other thing. So the fact that you came up with a story idea similar to another project which sold could catch the attention of a possible rep. Maybe you’re not just a decent writer, but one who can generate solid original story ideas.

So in sum, I say go for it. Acknowledge to the reps that you’re aware of the other project (this shows that you savvy enough to track the acquisition and development market), point out whatever differences there are, and note that you have plenty of other equally commercial story concepts. And if you don’t, you know what you have to do.

Yes, that’s right: A story idea each day for a month.

But that’s a whole other story…

UPDATE: Here’s something from Ryan Mullaney in comments:

Rework the idea into something more original. I had to do it, just like everyone else at one time or another, and I ended up with something better than what I had originally, so there is a silver lining after all.

By all means, yes. Probably the first thing you should do after discovering a similar project to yours (after knocking back a stiff drink). See if you can twist your story concept to make it more different than similar. Even something as simple as switching the gender of your Protagonist can work.

Nate Winslow said this:

Seeing the post Scott put up about DEVIL got me thinking about the number of times Hollywood has “doubled up” on their premises for produced films, which reminded me of the OTHER stuck-in-an-elevator-thriller that just sold.

So, DEVIL got made, DOWN is on its way to getting made, and what are the odds that someone buys two scripts that even involve elevators as a main plot point, much less the major location? (Not to mention they both start with D!)

And then a three or four years ago, again–who would have thought that out of all the genres and premises out their, we’d find two movies released in the same year about…19th Century magicians? The Illusionist and The Prestige came out within months of eachother, if I remember correctly.

Off the top of my head, there are at least three sets of movies covering the same subject that are currently in production/greenlit/racing to the greenlight: competing Three Musketeers movies, competing Don Quixote movies and competing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea movies. The trend there with the current ones being that they’re all adaptations, but still. So. Just heaping the evidence onto the pile that already lets us know that Hollywood digs the same but different. And in these cases, sometimes doesn’t even bother with the “different” part.

To which I responded:

You can add K-9 and Turner & Hootch to your list. How about 18 Again, Like Father Like son, Big, and a fourth one that I can’t quite remember, all of them coming out within a year of each other? This springs, I think, from the fear that underlies much of how studios operate. Hard to spring for an original, fresh idea, but if Studio A buys a body-swapping movie, the execs in Studio B think, “Hey, if THEY think that’s a great subject matter, maybe WE should try to find something.” Put out the word to reps, dig through their development trough. The latter is pretty much what happened, as I understand it, with Turner & Hootch – it had been collecting dust at Disney until K-9 sold, then all of a sudden they sprang into action, hiring new writers, and so on.

In other words, sometimes it actually HELPS to have a similar project out there.

Finally Teenie said:

Scott, your reply gives us all hope and when you stop to think about it, it is amazing the amount of similar films or re-makes being made.

Yes, even at times where your project gets blown out of the water completely by something else. I remember reading an interview with David Milch once, where he spent months working up a big TV project set in ancient Rome. He pitched it to HBO. They said, “Sorry, we’ve just bought a project called ‘Rome.'” They liked some of the themes and characters in Milch’s pitch, so he switched it around, and pitched them something else — which became “Deadwood.”

So again yes, there’s always hope.

[Originally posted July 22, 2010]

Reader Question: How much do I need to focus on “stylized writing”?

July 24th, 2015 by

Question from Thomas:

Hello Scott,

I’m beginning to write screenplays; however, I wanted to know how good at stylized writing do I need to be to become a successful screenwriter.

I aim to describe everything clearly. Clear enough for the cast and crew to understand and see the story in their minds.

Most scripts I read are so colorful and stylish. Is that something I should work on or do I just focus on telling my story clearly?

Thomas, your question goes to the heart of a writer’s voice. So a few things.

First, we have to draw a distinction between a selling script and a shooting script. The latter is a blueprint for the production team to make a movie. The former is what we, as writers, write to sell the project and move into development.

They can be two different beasts.

Whereas as shooting script (or production draft) may be much more about being “clear enough for the cast and crew to understand,” a selling script has one audience: The buyer. We are trying to engage the hell out of him/her.

Which leads to the second point: Entertainment is at a premium with a selling script. You may have heard of David Mamet’s one rule for script-writing: “Never be boring.” We have zero chance of getting a script to a production draft state unless we get it set up in the first place. And to do that, while clarity is important, entertaining the reader is more important.

This, Thomas, is why you see “colorful and stylish” writing in the scripts you have been reading. At this stage, we want to do whatever we can to excite a script reader about our story.

So yes, my advice is you do have to pay attention to your script’s style.

And this leads to the third point, something I raised earlier: Voice. Specifically what I call Narrative Voice.

Whatever the script’s genre is, the style exhibited primarily in scene description should reflect that genre. An action script should read hyperbolic. A comedy script should read funny. A thriller script should read intense. A horror script should read scary.

Here’s the thing. A novelist has a lot more leeway to convey their voice to a reader. Not so a screenwriter. Dialogue, yes. But not much else. So we need to embrace scene description as a platform to entertain and engage a reader.

Hence stylish writing.

With a selling script, clarity is important. Establishing a voice which entertains the reader in scene description, more important.

How to learn to do this? Read scripts. Focus on spec scripts which have sold in the last few years. Then test it out. Experiment with your own writing.

Give expression to your own Narrative Voice. It’s a major selling point for any spec script.