30 Things About Screenwriting – Entire Series

July 31st, 2015 by

Reflections on and basic tenets about the craft. They represent my take. If any of them resonate with you, great. If not, feel free to ignore them. Bottom line: You need to figure out your own approach to screenwriting. My hope is what you read on this blog day after day helps feed that process and provides you inspiration along the way.

1. There is no right way to write

2. Screenplays are stories, not formulas

3. Learn the craft

4. Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages.

5. A spec script will not sell unless it has a strong story concept

6. Write what they’re buying or sell them your dreams

7. There are no screenwriting rules

8. Immerse yourself in cinema

9. When something happens… something ELSE happens

10. Facing the odds

11. Know your genre

12. Learn about stacking projects

13. Living and writing in L.A.

14. Similar but different

15. Break your story in prep

16. Feet on the ground… head in the clouds

17. Get the damn thing done!

18. Beginning. Middle. End.

19. Don’t think… feel

20. Imagematic writing

21. If you write a great script…

22. Movies don’t owe anybody a living

23. Story as psychological journey

24. 1, 2, 7, 14

25. Setups and Payoffs

26. Test your concept

27. Minimum words, maximum impact

28. The Spirit of the Spec

29. The only way out is through

30. Go into the story and find the animals

Black List announces 2nd Annual Canadian Indie Screenwriting Fellowship

July 30th, 2015 by

The latest from the Black List:

LOS ANGELES, CA (July 29, 2015) – This morning, producer Martin Katz (Maps to the Stars, Hotel Rwanda), the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Black List announced that submissions were open for the second annual Martin Katz/TIFF Canadian Independent Screenwriting Fellowship, wherein one unrepresented writer with lifetime earnings not exceeding $25,000 (CAD) with a screenplay of indie sensibility will receive an all-expenses paid trip to the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and mentorship from Katz himself. The inaugural Independent Screenwriting Fellow was York University MFA student Kyle Francis.

Said Katz, Chair of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, “Canada has tremendous literary bench strength. We founded this Fellowship with TIFF and the Black List to help discover new talent writing for the screen.”

Writers with scripts on the Black List website will be able to opt into consideration for the opportunity until August 20. After this deadline, a shortlist of writers will be shared with Katz who will select one writer to make the trip. This year’s Fellow will also participate in the previously announced Black List Screenwriting Mini-Lab at the Toronto International Film Festival, a weekend of one-on-one workshopping and peer mentorship with professional screenwriters.

“Continuing this fellowship with Martin and the Toronto International Film Festival is a tremendous honor for the Black List,” said Black List founder Franklin Leonard. “We are incredibly excited to offer this opportunity to another up and coming Canadian writer.”

“This fellowship represents an exceptional opportunity for emerging Canadian talent,” said Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director of the Toronto International Film Festival. “Canadian screenwriters have proven for decades that we have unique, wild stories to share. I look forward to seeing what develops from the 2015 recipient of this fellowship.”

The recipient will also participate in the upcoming screenwriter mini-lab in Toronto. You may read about that mini-lab and others to be held this fall in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles here.

You may read about last year’s Canadian Indie Screenwriting Fellowship winner Kyle Francis here.

Read about all of the Black List screenwriting initiatives here.

The Black List continues to create innovative entry points for writers outside the Hollywood system, further cementing its place as the industry’s most influential screenwriting brand. For this reason and many more, I am honored and proud to be associated with Franklin Leonard and the rest of the Black List team.

Script Analysis: “Lone Survivor” – Scene By Scene Breakdown

July 30th, 2015 by

Reading scripts. Absolutely critical to learn the craft of screenwriting. The focus of this weekly series is a deep structural and thematic analysis of each script we read.

Today: A scene-by-scene breakdown of the script for the movie Lone Survivor.

Here is my take on this exercise from a previous series of posts — How To Read A Screenplay:

After a first pass, it’s time to crack open the script for a deeper analysis and you can do that by creating a scene-by-scene breakdown. It is precisely what it sounds like: A list of all the scenes in the script accompanied by a brief description of the events that transpire.

For purposes of this exercise, I have a slightly different take on scene. Here I am looking not just for individual scenes per se, but a scene or set of scenes that comprise one event or a continuous piece of action. Admittedly this is subjective and there is no right or wrong, the point is simply to break down the script into a series of parts which you then can use dig into the script’s structure and themes.

The value of this exercise:

* We pare down the story to its most constituent parts: Scenes.

* By doing this, we consciously explore the structure of the narrative.

* A scene-by-scene breakdown creates a foundation for even deeper analysis of the story.

You may download the script for Lone Survivor – free and legal – here.

Lone Survivor

Scene-by-scene breakdown

By Melinda Mahaffey Icden

GoIntoTheStory.com

PDF p.3-4: MARCUS LUTTRELL explains in voice-over the unrelenting drive of Navy SEALs as medics work on his dying body in Afghanistan.

PDF p.4-6: Five days earlier, 12 Navy SEALs – including Luttrell, Commander ERIK KRISTENSEN, newbie SHANE PATTON, DANNY DIETZ, MATT AXELSON and MIKE MURPHY – fly over the Hindu Kush mountains in a military helicopter, discussing tactics and talking about a horse for Murphy’s fiancée.

PDF p.6-8: Afghan warlord AHMAD SHAH, his number-two TARAQ, and CREW make their way through a village. They search for a local man believed to be aiding the Americans and then execute him.

PDF p.8-12: Eight hours earlier, at sunrise on Bagram Air Base, the four main characters – Luttrell, Dietz, Axe, and Murphy – wake up. We get some insight into their personal lives from photos on the bunk-room walls and their talk. Luttrell finds out that “Red Wings” is a go that night.

PDF p.12-18: Murphy and Dietz race each other outside in full body armor as Luttrell keeps time. Murphy wins, but his celebration is short-lived when Kristiansen announces that Red Wings is a go that night. Patton very much wants to know if he’s going to get to go.

PDF p.18-25: The SEALs, 30 of them, sit in a makeshift control center discussing Operation Red Wings, targeting Ahmad Shaw and his group of about 10. Dietz, Axe, Murphy and Luttrell are going in first on reconnaissance to positively identify Shah, while everyone else waits at J-Bad overnight. Dietz says not to worry about them until the foursome misses two windows.

PDF p.25-34: Lead-up to the night’s mission

  • As the foursome eats dinner, Dietz stresses about goings-on at home
  • Shane Patton goes through a lighthearted initiation rite, which includes dancing and the recitation of a SEAL mantra
  • The SEALs dress for combat
  • As they wait for the helicopters to arrive, the foursome continues to discuss Dietz’s problems at home
  • The helicopters arrive and the SEALs load up

PDF p.35-38: The helicopters drop Luttrell, Dietz, Axe, and Murphy onto a steep, dark hillside. Using night-vision goggles, they begin walking to the lookout point along a thin, tricky path. The other SEALs track their progress.

PDF p.38-40: The foursome arrives at the lookout point, 2,000 feet above an Afghan village, after sunrise. However, their view is partially blocked. Dietz tries to radio back to J-Bad. The signal is weak, but via HASSLERT, Kristensen eventually gets the message and boards a helicopter for Bagram, leaving MUSSLEMEN in charge.

PDF p.40-41: The foursome decides to move further down to see if there’s a better vantage point. At J-Bad, Hasslert tells Musslemen that the four should be hunkered down in place.

PDF p.41-43: The new lookout spot is good, but Dietz can’t get through to radio in the change of location. They count 40 Taliban men down in the village, many more than expected. Murphy spots Shah, but Luttrell says it’s too far to shoot and Dietz can’t get the radio working. They begin building their hiding spots.

PDF p.43-50: They hunker down, discussing horses again, among other things. Eventually everyone sleeps, with Dietz on watch.

PDF p.50-54: Dietz is still on watch and hears a noise. It’s the sound of bells. A herd of goats comes into view, followed by three locals – a BOY, TEENAGER, and an OLD MAN. When they get too close, the SEALs pop up and subdue them. Murphy tries to use a translation machine to communication, but it doesn’t work. They don’t know who these men are and can’t reach J-Bad by radio.

PDF p.54-60: Murphy unhappily uses the unsecure satellite phone, afraid the lengthy calls (due to bad connection) give away their position. Eventually, after a lot of back and forth, Kristiansen gets to the phone, but the connection has been lost, and no news has been relayed.

PDF p.60-70: The Afghan boy bolts. They get him back, and Murphy presents their options: tie the three up, let them go, or kill them. After much debate, Murphy, as leader, decides they will pack up, let them go, and make for the peak so they can use the radio to call for a pick-up.

PDF p.71-72: At J-Bad, there’s confusion about priorities, and the two Apache helicopters take off for another location/mission.

PDF p.72-74: The foursome releases the three Afghans, and the boy sprints down the hill. The SEALs slowly start heading up the mountain in full gear. Axe stumbles and sprains his ankle.

PDF p. 74-75: The kid reaches the village and promptly informs the Taliban men, who go into the woods and gear up. The foursome crests a hill, only to discover it’s a false summit – and the radio still doesn’t work. Murphy pulls out binoculars and scans the town, which appears quiet.

PDF p.75-77: Murphy makes the decision to hunker down for the next 60 minutes, until sunset, where they are. Axe has first watch.

PDF p.77-79: Thirty minutes pass, and Axe spots movement. They assess the area – they’re nearly surrounded by Taliban. The foursome preps their weapons and positions.

PDF p.79-83: Luttrell takes the first shot, successfully, and it erupts into a major firefight. Dietz and Murphy attempt to communicate using the radio and satellite phone. Dietz gets shot in the hand, Axe in the shoulder. As a group, the four SEALs push right, shelter behind a boulder. Dietz, Axe, and now also Luttrell get hit.

PDF p.84-85: At Bagram, Kristiansen debates what to do now that the team is close to missing a second communications window, decides to wait a little longer.

PDF p.85-87: The Taliban begin firing RPGs. Murphy takes a bullet in the stomach. Under relentless attack, the four decide to fall back and pitch themselves off the 50-foot cliff behind. It’s a hard fall, and they hit trees and rocks on the way down.

PDF p.87-91: There’s some contradiction in this scene set, but essentially, the four survive the 300-yard tumble, while the Taliban begin a slower climb down. The RPGs set the trees on fire. Blood pours from Murphy’s stomach, while Dietz is seriously wounded. The SEALs take cover in the burning trees as the Taliban continue to fire at them.

PDF p.91-93: The Taliban get closer, into better positions, and Murphy and Dietz get hit again. Murphy tells them to move left. Axe and Luttrell begin moving, but Dietz is having trouble. Murphy manages to get him going.

PDF p.93-94: The SEALs claw their way across the landscape with difficulty, trying to escape. But they can only get so far before they collapse, out of breath. Murphy tries again to get a sat phone signal.

PDF p.94: Now that two communications windows have been missed, Kristensen calls his commanding officer.

PDF p.94-96: From their resting spot, the SEALs hear voices, getting closer. However, they’ve managed to lose the Taliban men, but then Dietz – who’s losing it – speaks in a loud voice, giving away their position.

PDF p.96-100: The Taliban begin firing, and Murphy decides they’re going to do another drop, their only option – it’s 80 feet down. Taraq and six fighters come charging, and Axe and Murphy leap off. Luttrell has Dietz over his shoulder, and just as he’s about to jump, Taraq fires, hitting both SEALs in the neck. Luttrell drops Dietz and falls backward off the cliff.

PDF p.100: Kristiansen tries to contact them again.

PDF p.100-102: Axe, Murphy and Luttrell debate what to do about Dietz as explosions go off around them. Luttrell seems to believe he’s dead. They decide to try and get Dietz, above, and then move down to flat ground. They move out.

PDF p.102-106: Dietz, barely alive, tries to get to his feet but is kept down by Taraq. Murphy and Luttrell attempt to climb the steep pitch, while Axe covers them. But it’s useless. Murphy pulls out the sat phone and gives his spare ammo to Luttrell.

PDF p.106-107: Murphy charges up the hill, taking bullets, until he gets a phone connection. He reaches Hasslert at J-Bad and requests air support. Murphy fires at the Taliban soldiers until he himself is killed, as Luttrell falls back to Axe.

PDF p.107-110: SEALs and Marines at J-Bad and Bagram prep. Two helicopters from Bagram, with Kristensen aboard, take off. The helicopters from J-Bad are grounded at the last moment because the Apaches (their air cover) are elsewhere. It’ll take 15 minutes for the Apaches to arrive.

PDF p.110-111: Axe and Luttrell hide behind some rocks. Axe wants to know where Murphy is and if he made the call.

PDF p.111-120: Potential rescue:

  • Kristiansen’s helicopter pilot agrees to put the men on the ground, even though he’s not supposed to without Apache support.
  • Axe and Luttrell climb down to the village as Taraq tracks them from above.
  • Apaches arrive at J-Bad and the helicopters take off.
  • Taraq is just 100 feet away. Axe is afraid he’s dying from a head wound, and Luttrell says they just have to grit it out for 15 minutes.
  • Axe and Luttrell separate, head off in different directions into the woods. Fire fight for both. They hear a helicopter overhead.
  • As the pilot tries to drop the SEALs – who include Kristensen and Patton – the Taliban fire an RPG, and the helicopter explodes. The second helicopter pilot refuses to put down.

PDF p.120-121: Luttrell watches from a distance as Shah’s men shoot at Axe, hitting him twice in the throat. RPG ammo explodes near Luttrell, knocking him down the mountain, and he hits his head on a rock, nearly knocking him out.

PDF p.121-123: The SEAL lieutenant in the other helicopter demands the ramp be opened, but the pilot refuses. At Bagram, troops mobilize. Intercut scenes of a dazed and nearly deaf Luttrell trying to make his way down the mountain as the J-Bad helicopters approach and the Taliban take cover. Luttrell hides himself in a rock crevice and then falls asleep.

PDF p.124-126: The next morning, Luttrell wakes up and takes stock. He resets his broken shin bone. From behind some rocks, Luttrell surveys the village. He sees Taliban there and makes his way to a trail leading away.

PDF p.126-127: ARMY INTEL GUY relays the status of the mission while a special-ops team secures the area around the downed helicopter.

PDF p.128-129: Luttrell struggles along in the woods, desperately searching for water. He finds a freshwater pool and falls in, deliriously happy.

PDF p.129-134: He senses something and looks up to find three Afghan men and a boy watching him. Luttrell pulls the pin from a grenade, but GULAB puts his hands up and says, “not Taliban.” Taraq and his men appear, and the three hide Luttrell. Meanwhile, the rescue teams are tracked from Bagram.

PDF p.134-137: Luttrell is helped into Gulab’s village and house. Luttrell writes a note and gives it to Gulab’s father, who goes to find the Americans. Taraq and five men arrive in town and find Luttrell. Taraq is questioning him when armed villagers save him. Taraq says they’ll come back and slaughter the entire town.

PDF p.137-141: Gulab’s father continues his trek while Taraq calls in reinforcements and the villagers debate what to do. Luttrell tries to communicate with the boy and asks for a knife but receives a duck. Gulab brings a knife and they watch as Luttrell takes bullets out of his leg before passing out.

PDF p.141-143: The next morning, Shah, Taraq and 50 heavily armed men surround the town. At Bagram, MARINES receive word there’s been a letter from Luttrell, and a plane takes off. Luttrell wakes up, and Gulab and the boy feed him. He thanks them just as an RPG explodes into the side of the house.

PDF p.143-145: As a Taliban man strangles Luttrell, the boy hands Luttrell a knife, enabling him to free himself. But Taraq is seemingly winning the bigger battle until helicopters arrive, decimating the Taliban fighters. Both Luttrell and Gulab take aim at Taraq, and they kill him.

PDF p.145: Helicopters land to pick up Luttrell. He wants Gulab to come, too, but they are separated by AIRMEN, and he’s too weak to resist. The helicopter takes off.

PDF p. 145-end: Luttrell’s voice-over from the first scene continues as the medics work on his wounded body as they fly over the Afghan mountains. He explains how he both died and lived on that mountain, as the monitor changes from flatline to heart beat.

Writing Exercise: I encourage you to read the script, but short of that, if you’ve seen the movie, go through this scene-by-scene breakdown. What stands out to you about it from a structural standpoint?

If you’d like a PDF of the Lone Survivor scene-by-scene breakdown, go here.

Major kudos to Melinda Mahaffey Icden for doing today’s breakdown.

REQUEST: We have some incredible scripts in the GITS library which we have yet to analyze including 12 Years a Slave, Frozen, The Wolf of Wall Street, and many more.

I am looking for volunteers to read a script and provide a scene-by-scene breakdown for it to be used as part of our weekly series. What do you get? Beyond your name being noted here, my thanks, and some creative juju, hopefully you will learn something about story structure and develop another skill set which is super helpful in learning and practicing the craft.

The latest volunteers:

Birdman – Doc Kane
Dallas Buyers Club – Devin Dingler
Gone Girl – Ashley
Looper – Michael Perkins
Nebraska – David Joyner
Nightcrawler – Marija

Thanks, all!

To see examples of scene-by-scene breakdowns, go here. Part of the goal is to create a library of breakdowns for writers to have at their disposal for research and learning.

You may see the scripts we can use for the series – free and legal – by going here.

To date, we have analyzed 43 movie scripts, a great resource for screenwriters. To see those analyses, go here.

Thanks to any of you who will rise to the occasion and take on a scene-by-scene breakdown.

Circling back to where we started, reading scripts is hugely important. Analyzing them even more so. If you want to work in Hollywood as a writer, you need to develop your critical analytical skills. This is one way to do that.

So seize this opportunity and join in the conversation!

I hope to see you in comments about today’s script: Lone Survivor.

30 Days of Screenwriting: Go into the story and find the animals

July 30th, 2015 by

If you’ve taken the time to click on About GITS on the home page and read The Story Behind Go Into The Story, you know that this mantra derives from a conversation I had with my then three year-old son. It went pretty much like this:

Me: Hey, Luke, I’m starting to write a new script tomorrow. And it’s funny, but no matter how many times I start a new story, I get a bit, uh, nervous about it. Got any, you know, advice for your dad?

Luke [without any hesitation]: Go into the story and find the animals.

God as my witness, that’s what my son said.

Now who knows what Luke was really thinking at the time. Stupidly I didn’t follow up with him, flummoxed as I was at his comment. I remember mulling it over and thinking that the whole idea of going into a story is precisely what a writer does, immersing themselves in a narrative universe that they create. That has always seemed just right to me, both in its simplicity and profundity, which is frankly why I named this blog GoIntoTheStory.

But over time, it’s the other part in which I’ve discovered more and more layers of meaning. Start with the verb “find.” Is there any word more appropriate to describe the writing process? Here are some of its definitions:

* “to come upon by chance”: Doesn’t that sound like brainstorming?

* “to locate, attain, or obtain by search or effort”: Doesn’t that sound like research?

* “to discover or perceive after consideration”: Doesn’t that sound like what happens when we mull over our story?

* “to feel or perceive”: As we go into the story, we become more and more emotionally connected to it.

* “to become aware of, or discover”: The biggie, where as explorers we uncover a story’s hidden gems.

Then there is “the animals.” I’m almost sure what Luke was thinking about was how a children’s story so often is habituated by animals. Thus in his eyes, my task was probably pretty simple: Go find the animals. They are your characters. But what if we think about it more symbolically?

* Animals can be both domesticated and wild. So some things we discover as we go into the story are what we might expect (domesticated). Other times we’re surprised, even shocked by ideas and thoughts that spring to mind (wild).

* Animals are alive, organic, and intuitive beings. So are our story’s characters.

* Throughout human history, animals have come to mean something in stories. A fox is sly and cunning. A crow in many cultures signifies death. An owl is wise. Per Jung and others who study myth and psychoanalysis, animals can serve as conduits into the mind of the dreamer.

Which reminds me of something I read about a movie director who in prepping to make a movie gave each of the actors their own animal token as something they could reference in interpreting their character.

I’m sure if you think about it, you could probably come up with other shades of meaning for the mantra.

I just know that it’s my favorite one of all because of its source.

There you have it: 10 writing mantras over the last 2 weeks. I have more, but that’s enough for now. I hope that you have resonated with at least one of them. Use them to help you focus your thoughts and bring clarity to your writing process.

But for now and always, my wish for each of you is the same sentiment as once uttered by a cherubic youngster with bright blue eyes and a look of deep intention in his face:

Go into the story… and find the animals.

For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.

[Originally posted November 30, 2013]

Twitter Rant: Eric Heisserer on How to Treat a Film Crew

July 29th, 2015 by

Twitter can be a gold mine for writers. Case in point, when pro writers decide to go on a rant about the craft, such as Eric Heisserer, who occasionally will sidle up to Twitter with a libation at hand, and lay down some flat-out wisdom, 140 characters at a time.

Yesterday Eric went on a ‘rant’ about the experience of crew members during a movie’s production. Reprinted by permission.

1/ Been seeing a lot of buzz on my corner of the social media block, about tortuous productions. And I have opinions! Based on experiences.

2/ Some are crying foul at set experiences being called “a living hell.” Some see any movie as a golden opportunity for crew.

3/ That is a bit off, in my worldview. Crews aren’t excited about working for a terrible person or brutal perfectionist.

4/ We creatives tend to assume anyone working with people we admire would see it the same way. But they don’t. And with good reason.


7/ The call ended with, “If you go over 15 hours in a day we’re pulling the plug.” Director returned to set, invigorated. Producers ask why.

8/ Director smiled, “The studio authorized me for 15-hour days!” And every single one after that was 15 hours.

9/ That movie wound up being a middling hit, no real critical acclaim, a lot of fun at times. But was it worth destroying that crew?

10/ That’s the way some people work. It’s how they go through the process. I’ve seen Academy-winning films made from 10-hour days. Smooth.

11/ There are ways (more than one) to work in this business that doesn’t require brutalizing the people who work for you.

12/ Does it make the movie better? Sometimes. Once in a while. But more than anything it shines a light on a personal flaw.

13/ Maybe the horrendous hours are due to a tiny budget and too few shooting days for the material. Or maybe it’s an indecisive director.

I really really don’t like how some use the idea of pursuing art as an excuse to be sociopaths to everyone else.

If you know you’re in for a really long day because it takes that to get to a shot/performance, be transparent about it.

If you think Eric is commenting solely from the perspective of a screenwriter-stuck-in-his-little-room-writing-all-day-with-no-experience-of-a-movie-set, you’d be wrong. Eric has actually written and directed a movie — Hours (2013). Plus he was just on the set for a stretch for the upcoming movie Story of Your Life which Eric adapted from a Ted Chiang short story, the movie starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, and directed by Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve. So he knows his way around a movie set.

Here’s the thing: You have to have a certain amount of ego to be a director. We are talking about having a creative vision, the inner fortitude to strive for that vision, and the self-confidence to marshal a crew of dozens and dozens of people on a daily basis over 10, 12, 14 weeks or more.

But that doesn’t mean you have a God-given right to be an asshole.

Moreover if you think the only way to achieve your creative vision, answer this: How is it that countless great directors have been and are able to accomplish that while taking a humanistic approach toward their crews?

You may follow Eric on Twitter: @HIGHzurrer.

You may read my April 2013 interview with Eric here.

30 Things About Screenwriting: The only way out is through

July 29th, 2015 by

Imagine the process of writing a story as being a journey. Perhaps as you embark on your adventure, you have a map — an outline or beat sheet. Or maybe you don’t, plunging into your story in order to find it along the way. In either case, it’s almost certain that you will reach points in the writing process where you will feel lost. The plot isn’t working like you thought it would. Your characters feel remote and confusing. Your scenes don’t seem to be working. Your map or instincts become a labyrinth. Basically you are left to ponder, “What the hell was I thinking?”

That’s when you are tempted to give up.

Don’t. Giving up doesn’t get you out, rather it only allows you to avoid story — or so you think. It still exists. And by quitting, you create a shadow, your story as unfulfilled potential looming over you like a ghost.

No, the only way out is through.

You have to push yourself through your feelings of doubt. Push yourself through the ambiguities of your plot. Push yourself through the hard work of pounding out pages.

Rather than quitting, take the opposite approach: Go deeper into your story. To paraphrase “The X-Files,” the truth is in there!

If you go through the process, you will find your way out.

Every journey has its twists and turns. You may not be able to see where you’re heading around the next turn, but the fact is there is a path.

And the only way out is through.

For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.

[Originally posted November 29, 2013]

Character = Function

July 28th, 2015 by

In a screenplay, characters exist for a reason. Unlike a novel, a writer doesn’t have unlimited time to introduce characters willy nilly, rather the limitations of a script’s length compels us to handle characters with one eye always on how they connect to the plot. Moreover almost all movies feature a Protagonist who goes through some sort of metamorphosis. As a result, it’s almost certain all of the primary and even secondary characters in a story tie into and support the Protagonist’s transformation.

All of this translates into a 3rd essential screenwriting principle I teach in the Core curriculum:

Character = Function

This may sound reductionist. It is precisely the opposite. Much like an actor asks, “What’s my motivation,” digging down into the core of their character’s persona, so, too, do we as screenwriters delve into characters to determine what their core essence is and how that plays out in terms of their respective narrative functions. Once we make those discoveries, we can shape our characters in unlimited ways, all the while playing to how they function in relation to the narrative.

That is the starting point of Core III: Character, a 1-week online class I will be teaching starting on Monday, August 3. In this course, you will learn about:

* Five primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster

* Protagonist Metamorphosis Arc

* Nemesis as opposition and ‘shadow’

* Attractor as the character most connected to a Protagonist’s emotional development

* Mentor as the character most connected to a Protagonist’s intellectual development

* Trickster as the character who tests the Protagonist’s will

* Different Protagonist paradigms

* Working with archetypes and switching Protagonists

And much more.

The course consists of four components:

  • Lectures: There are six lectures written by me, each posting Monday through Saturday.
  • Writing Exercises: These optional exercises offer you the opportunity to workshop one of your own loglines and receive feedback from class members.
  • Teleconference: We will have a Skype teleconference call to discuss course material, a great opportunity to interface directly with me and other writers in the course.
  • Forums: The online course site has message boards where you may post questions / comments, almost always a place where remarkable conversations and analysis takes place.

We will analyze a lot of movies including The Wizard of Oz, The Apartment, The Silence of the Lambs, Slumdog Millionaire, Citizen Kane, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Life Is Beautiful, and many more.

For those of you who have not taken an online class, the interface is extremely easy. Plus online classes can be an amazing experience. Most of the activities you can do on your own time — download and read lectures, review and respond to forum discussions, upload loglines and track comments. In addition, I’ve been teaching online for over a decade and it never ceases to amaze me how much of a community emerges in such an environment.

Core III: Character is one of eight classes in the Core curriculum. Here is the schedule for all of them this summer and fall, the only time I will be offering these courses in 2015:

July 6 – Core I: Plot
July 20 – Core II: Concept
August 3 – Core III: Character
August 31 – Core IV: Style
September 28 – Core V: Dialogue
October 12 – Core VI: Scene
November 16 – Core VII: Theme
December 7 – Core VIII: Time

Choose one or two depending upon your interests and needs. Or if you’re really serious and want to save some coin (nearly 50% off), consider The Core Package which gives you immediate access to the content for all eight Core classes which you can go through at your own pace, as well as the option of taking each 1-week online course.

“Joining Scott’s class is one of the best decisions anyone could make when deciding to embark on the journey of writing a screenplay. His passion for teaching and screenwriting could not be more inspirational. I couldn’t wish for a better teacher and mentor!” — Theodora von Auersperg

“Your unique lectures helped me think about character in new ways, and will inevitably change the way I approach new ideas and outlines. And I’m blown away and impressed at the level of personal feedback/communication from you. I don’t know how you do it– androids couldn’t manage their time more efficiently than you.” — Bob Corsi

I have spent years studying Carl Jung, who was a huge influence on Joseph Campbell, and as the Hero’s Journey may act as a paradigm for narrative generally, I am convinced there is a similar universality in movies relative to these five character archetypes. Moreover these archetypes are a key to character-based screenwriting, providing writers a non-formulaic way to engage the story-crafting process.

For information on Core III: Character, which begins August 4, go here.

For The Core Package, go here.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

30 Things About Screenwriting: The Spirit of the Spec

July 28th, 2015 by

You get an idea.

You act on your idea.

You write your story.

You put it out there.

And if it doesn’t sell

This is what I call the spirit of the spec.

Live it. Be it. Do it.

For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.

[Originally posted November 28, 2015]

30 Things About Screenwriting: Minimum Words, Maximum Impact

July 27th, 2015 by

I know the source of this mantra. It was one of my online screenwriting students. During a weekly live-chat session. I was going on and on about the importance of writing tight, taut, lean scene description, make it easy on the eye, clean on the page, really getting on my bully pulpit. Then a student typed:

Minimum words, maximum impact?

Here I had been guilty of the very thing I was decrying, then — boom! The perfect comment. Four words. And maximum impact indeed!

Screenplays are a unique narrative form. Unlike novels which can be hundreds, even thousands of pages long, a feature length script is typically no longer than 120 pages, even less nowadays with action, comedy, and horror scripts clocking in at 90-95 pages. Simply based on the fact that you have a limit to the page count means you should be mindful of how you approach your use of words when handling scene description.

Beyond that, there is an aesthetic consideration. Scripts filled with black ink are not only less pleasant to look at, they’re harder for a reader to get through. White space is more attractive to the eye, which can have a psychological effect on a reader, and can make a script a better read. In truth, I’ve known some script readers who have told me they hate reading scene description and often will skip big blocks of it to read the dialogue. Why? Because dialogue margins are narrower and therefore easier to read.

But there’s an even more important reason why we need to be incredibly choosy about the words we use when writing scene description: To make an impact on the reader. How do we do that? Strong verbs. Visual nouns and adjectives. Tight paragraphs. Good, lean imagematic writing. Here’s an example from the beginning of The Matrix:

INT. CHASE HOTEL

The Big Cop flicks out his cuffs, the other cops holding a bead. They've done
this a hundred times, they know they've got her (Trinity), until the Big Cop
reaches with the cuffs and Trinity moves –

It almost doesn't register, so smooth and fast, inhumanly fast.

The eye blinks and Trinity's palm snaps up and his nose explodes, blood
erupting. Her leg kicks with the force of a wrecking ball and he flies back,
a two-hundred-fifty pound sack of limp meat and bone that slams into the
cop farthest from her.

Trinity moves again, BULLETS RAKING the WALLS, flashlights sweeping
with panic as the remaining cops try to stop a leather-clad ghost.

A GUN still in the cop's hand is snatched, twisted and FIRED.

There is a final violent exchange of GUNFIRE and when it's over, Trinity is the
only one standing.

18 lines and a ton of action. Average paragraph length: 2 lines. And note those descriptors: flicks, inhumanly fast, blinks, snaps, explodes, erupting, kicks, wrecking ball, flies, limp meat and bone, slams, raking, sweeping, leather-clad ghost, snatched, twisted, fired, gunfire. You could almost just read those key words and get a sense of the action. And here is the scene (beginning at 1:05 in this clip):

Of course, the mantra pertains to dialogue as well. I’ve heard an anecdote about one of the first things Clint Eastwood does when he agrees to act in a movie is take a red marker and cross out half of his dialogue. Movies are primarily a visual medium. While important, creating moments where with a minimum of dialogue we let the emotion of the scene work its magic in subtext and silence is most often the preferred way to go.

File this one under “less is more.”

Minimum words, maximum impact.

For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.

[Originally posted November 27, 2013]

30 Things About Screenwriting: Test your story concept

July 26th, 2015 by

If your goal is to traffic in mainstream, commercial movies, I cannot overstate the importance of your spec script’s story concept. As I detailed here, it is critical to the success of your original screenplay.

So let’s say you take this seriously. You generate lots of story ideas. Great. How to assess them? Here are five questions you can ask about any idea you come up with to help determine if it’s something worth pursuing as a script.

Does the concept have a grab?

The concept should have significant narrative elements that “grab” a reader’s imagination, elicit curiosity, and arouse an emotional response.

These elements may include the core conceit, key characters such as Protagonist and Nemesis, the central conflict, themes, where the story fits into its genre, and so on.

Does the concept have an indicator?

The concept should “indicate” to a reader the general direction the narrative will take, and that it promises to be an entertaining ride.

When any studio executive, producer, manager or agent hears a story concept, they want to be able to see the overall contour of the plot and what is compelling about it.

Does the concept have an audience?

The concept should conjure up a distinct “audience,” one a reader can readily match to a targeted, demographic group.

Anyone who is in a position to buy a script when hearing a story concept for the first time will immediately think, “Who will want to see this movie?”

Is the concept big enough to be a movie?

The concept should feel “big,” something that could sustain the interest of a script reader (and eventually a moviegoer) for up to two hours.

From a buyer’s standpoint, this question is directly related to the previous one: “Will the experience of watching this movie satisfy the viewer who spent $10 or more to see it?”

I have framed these four questions from a script reader and buyer’s perspective, however they work at the level of a writer thinking about the story strictly as a writing project:

  • Does the concept have enough of a grab to give me confidence I can write a fully fleshed-out and entertaining story?
  • Does the concept have a clear enough indicator to suggest a strong Plotline and Themeline leading to a satisfying resolution?
  • Does the concept have a specific enough audience so I know for whom I am writing the story?
  • Does the story feel big enough for me to find the narrative elements I need to write an engaging story of one hundred pages or more?

If those questions don’t speak directly enough to your writer’s soul about a story concept, this one surely will:

Does the story resonate with me on a personal level?

You may have stumbled upon the greatest high concept of all time, but if you don’t connect with it, if you don’t sense much in the way of enthusiasm for its narrative possibilities, and/or if the story doesn’t play to your writing strengths, it’s probably not a good idea to write that story.

You need to have some sort of personal connection with a story to find its emotional core and imbue its characters with life.

You need to have a passion for a story to keep luring you back to the writing and push you to FADE OUT. Writing is hard work. Writing something for which you do not have much enthusiasm is really hard work.

So five questions to help you assess any concept, but bottom line you must be passionate about any story to write it in such a way that it lifts up off the printed page and comes alive in the imagination of a script reader.

For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.

[Originally posted November 26, 2013]