Go Into The Story Week In Review: June 29-July 5, 2015

July 5th, 2015 by

Links to this week’s most notable posts:

30 Things About Screenwriting: There is no right way to write

30 Things About Screenwriting: Screenplays are stories, not formulas

30 Things About Screenwriting: Learn the craft

30 Things About Screenwriting: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages.

30 Things About Screenwriting: The importance of a strong story concept

Another Story Idea Straight from the News

Daily Dialogue theme for next week: Subtext

“Effective Feedback: The Little Known Secret To Pixar’s Creative Success”

Go Into The Story Interview (2 Part Series): Marc Hofstatter (Indiegogo)

Go Into The Story Movie Analysis: Jurassic World

Go Into The Story Script Read and Analysis: Barney’s Version

Great Character: Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum (“The Great Santini”)

Interview (Video): Jesse Andrews and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Interview (Written): Jesse Andrews (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl)

On Writing: Luis Bunuel

Paul Schrader’s take on “there are no rules to beak”

Plot = Structure

Reader Question: How do I make supporting characters distinctive and interesting?

Saturday Hot Links

Screenwriting 101: Tim McCanlies

Screenwriting News (June 29-July 5, 2015)

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 14]

“There are no original story ideas, only original ways to tell them”

Walt Disney’s 1957 Business Strategy

30 Things About Screenwriting: The importance of a strong story concept

July 5th, 2015 by

If you write a spec script based upon the first story idea that comes into your mind, that script likely won’t sell.

Why? Because almost assuredly, it is not a strong story concept.

It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of a story idea to the eventual success of a spec script.

A good story concept enables producers and studio execs to ‘see’ the movie.

A good story concept provides ammo for marketing departments to advertise the film.

A good story concept emboldens managers and agents to sell the crap out of your script.

Although I have no way of proving it, I believe the story concept may represent up to half of the value of a screenplay to a potential buyer. That’s right, half.

Here are some quotes from a pair of established screenwriters about the importance of story concepts:

“Most aspiring screenwriters simply don’t spend enough time choosing their concept. It’s by far the most common mistake I see in spec scripts. The writer has lost the race right from the gate. Months — sometimes years — are lost trying to elevate a film idea that by its nature probably had no hope of ever becoming a movie.” — Terry Rossio (Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

Ideas cost NOTHING and require ZERO risk. And yet, oddly, the LEAST amount of time’s usually spent in the idea stage before a small fortune is dumped on a whimsy that’s still half-baked… Ideas cost nothing yet have the potential to yield inexplicably long careers and happy lives.” — Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Zak and Miri Make a Porno)

Are you thinking of story ideas every day? Do you have a master list of story ideas that is… growing? Is one part of your brain on auto-pilot, always sifting through the daily data that comes your way in search of possible story ideas?

Nobel Prize-winning scientist Linus Pauling said this:

We, as writers, should be generating “lots of ideas.”

How to do that? Perhaps the single biggest key is two simple words: What if?

Consider anecdotes from three screenwriters:

“The inspiration for coming up with the story [Back to the Future] is that I was visiting my parents in the summer of 1980, from St. Louis Missouri, and I found my father’s high-school yearbook in the basement. I’m thumbing through it and I find out that my father was the president of his graduating class, which I was completely unaware of. So there’s a picture of my dad, 18-years-old… The question came up in my head, ‘gee, what if I had gone to school with my dad, would I have been friends with him?’ That was where the light bulb went off.” — Bob Gale (1941, Used Cars, Back to the Future I, II, III)

“The secret, the great key to writing Hook, came from my son. When he was six, he asked the question, ‘What if Peter Pan grew up?’ I had been trying to find a new way into the famous ‘boy who wouldn’t grow up’ tale, and our son gave me the key.” — James V. Hart (Dracula, Contact, Hook)

“The Shakespeare in Love screenplay was written by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard, although the original idea was rooted in a third creative mind – one of Norman’s son’s, Zachary. It was in 1989, while studying Elizabethan drama at Boston University, that the younger Norman phoned his father with a sudden brainstorm of a movie concept – the young William Shakespeare in the Elizabethan theater. The elder Norman agreed it was a terrific idea, but he hadn’t a clue what to do with it. Two years later, with bits of time stolen from other projects, the notion had formed – what if Shakespeare had writer’s block while writing his timeless classic, ‘Romeo and Juliet’”? — Marc Norman (The Aviator, Cutthroat Island, Shakespeare in Love)

What if I had gone to school with my dad? What if Peter Pan grew up? What if Shakespeare had writers block? Each the basis of a successful movie. Each a strong concept.

Want to jump start your ability to think concepts? Make the words “what if” an essential part of your brainstorming vocabulary. That is the most proactive way you can go about trying to surface strong story concepts.

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

[Originally posted November 5, 2013]

30 Things About Screenwriting: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages.

July 4th, 2015 by

You can learn pretty much everything you need to know about screenwriting by doing these three things:

Watch movies.
Read scripts.
Write pages.

I coined this triptych nearly four years ago and it seems to have caught on. Here’s why:

Why watch movies?

Because to be a good screenwriter, you need to have a broad exposure to the world of film. Every movie you see is a potential reference point for your writing, everything from story concepts you generate to characters you develop to scenes you construct. Moreover people who work in the movie business constantly reference existing movies when discussing stories you write; it’s a shorthand way of getting across what they mean or envision.

But most importantly, you need to watch movies in order to ‘get’ how movie stories work. If you immerse yourself in the world of film, it’s like a Gestalt experience where you begin to grasp intuitively scene composition, story structure, character functions, dialogue and subtext, transitions and pacing, and so on.

Movies must be in your lifeblood – and the best way to do that is to watch them. If you haven’t seen all of AFI’s Top 100 Movies or the IMDB Top 250, now is the time to start.

Why read scripts?

Because every script you read is a learning experience. If it’s a good script, you can break it down scene-by-scene to determine why it works. If it’s a bad script, you can see aspects of writing you do not want to emulate. By reading screenplays of great movies, you can see how the pages were translated onto the screen, thereby giving you insight into how to write cinematically.

But most important, you need to read screenplays because these are primary source material, the ‘stuff’ you traffic when you write. Reading other writers’ screenplays is a great way to expose you to different approaches, which will help you inform and define your own unique style, your own distinct voice.

Screenplays are the form through which you tell stories – and the best way learn that form is by reading scripts. If you haven’t read the WGA Top 101 list of screenplays, now is the time to get started. You can go to simplyscripts.com or other screenplay sites to access literally thousands of screenplays.

Why write pages?

I don’t really have to explain this, right? You know that you have to write to get better as a writer, not just the words you manage to write, but how you approach writing from a psychological, emotional, and spiritual perspective. Nobody is born a writer, we all become writers, it’s an active process that is ongoing throughout our lives.

But most important, you need to write to feed your creativity. Putting words onto paper is an act of incarnation. Rewriting and editing your words are acts of shaping the material. Screenwriting is a craft, but you have to be able to tap into your world of ‘art’ in order to make your pages come alive.

Writing is the process whereby you create stories — and the best way to develop that process is to do it. Every day. For this, I have no websites to which to point you. No lists with which to challenge you. Just this fact: When you aren’t writing, someone else is.

Screenwriting is an incredibly competitive business. There are no short cuts to success. But there are three habits you can embrace that can teach you everything you need to know about the craft, about creativity, and about your writer’s self:

Watch movies.
Read scripts.
Write pages. 

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

[Originally posted November 4, 2013]

30 Things About Screenwriting: Learn the craft

July 3rd, 2015 by

Here’s one big problem with most of the screenwriting approaches I see floating around: Their focus is almost exclusively on writing a screenplay. Obviously this is important. You must be able to translate your talent, voice, and vision for a story onto the printed page. A script not only is a commodity which you can sell, it is also a representation of who you are as a writer.

But while a screenplay is an end product of what we do, there is so much more to actually being a screenwriter than simply writing a script. And much of what that is about, that ‘stuff’ we ingest along the way, impacts how we approach our writing, where we put our focus, and what ends up on the page.

In other words, it is not just about writing a screenplay. It’s about thinking and acting like a screenwriter. And to do that, we need to learn the craft.

How? Just as there is no right way to write, there is no right way to learn the craft. However here is a list of areas I think any writer would be wise to include in their learning process:

Theory: Some writers need less of this, some require more, but at least a basic take on the fundamentals of screenwriting theory.

Research: While it might not be necessary to determine a specific approach, a writer should know their way around a library or nowadays the Web. Perhaps more important, a writer should engender and feed their curiosity to dig into the subject matter of the story they are writing as that is the surest path toward being able to create a world that feels authentic to a reader.

Prep: While it may be fine to approach writing a novel with zero advance work, screenwriters who choose to work on assignment are not allowed that luxury. Generally we have about 10 weeks to turn in a draft and one key to managing to pull that off on a consistent basis is to break your story in prep. This varies from writer to writer, but often an outline becomes their best friend.

First Draft: Some call it a ‘vomit draft,’ others a ‘muscle draft,’ however a writer refers to it, they ought to develop a mindset whereby they can knock out that first draft without constantly going back or getting stuck. This is where the value of prep emerges in a big way because if a writer breaks the story before they type FADE IN, they are much more likely to be able pound out a first draft.

Rewriting: There is perhaps no other narrative form to which the saying ‘writing is rewriting’ pertains more than screenwriting. So part of this learning curve is not only developing an approach to the rewrite process, but also an embrace of this as an ongoing reality of what screenwriters do. For a screenwriter, rewriting is akin to breathing. It just is.

Production: If a writer is lucky, their script becomes an actual movie. That sounds wonderful, and it is, but it also means every scene gets translated by the film crew into the nuts and bolts of actual production. Therefore it behooves a screenwriter to understand the connection between what they write on the page and what that entails when a movie gets made. Helpful hint: Make some short films to put yourself on the set.

Post-Production: There’s a lot involved in post, but the single most important point of focus for a screenwriter is to be mindful of the editing process. Indeed a writer thinking like an editor when crafting a script, everything from scene construction to scene transitions, can make for a better read and benefit the entire production and post process.

Acting: One of the smartest things a writer can do is take an acting class (or two). Yes, this is about writing dialogue that is ‘actor friendly,’ but it is also about something incredibly fundamental: understanding characters. Actors ask the same questions about a character writers do: motivation, personality, backstory, want, need, goals. The more a writer can grasp how actors think about their craft, the more that can translate into strong characterizations on the page.

Business: While a writer relies on their agent, manager and lawyer for career advice as well as inside information about industry trends, it is important for a writer to understand the basics of the entertainment business. From acquisition to development to production to marketing to distribution to finance, a writer’s stories get touched by people in all of these areas, so it just makes sense for them to have a basic comprehension of how the film business works.

Producers: Per this last point, one of the most important ways of thinking about screenwriting is as a producer. The ability to put on their ‘hat’ and see things through their eyes can be enormously helpful for a writer in terms of everything from story decisions to business strategy. Producers are often a writer’s best friend on a project. Understanding their world view is a plus.

Critical Eye: The movie business is incredibly competitive and it is ridiculously hard to get any movie produced. Therefore a writer must adjust their analytical instincts accordingly. A good place to start is with this basic question directed at each story a writer takes on: Is this a movie? The ability to answer that question honestly and without prejudice is key. A writer can use that same level of scrutiny to story choices: Is this distinctive? Is this cliche? Is this the very best I can do? If not, do better.

The World of Cinema: Any writer who hopes to grow a career as a screenwriter must immerse him/herself in the world of cinema. See every movie. Read every script. Know film history. This is important for a myriad of reasons including the simple fact that everyone in the business constantly refers to other movies, therefore a writer must know their stuff to be able to converse knowledgeably in development meetings, meet-and-greets, social circumstances, and the like.

There’s a lot more I haven’t mentioned — how to pick your battles, how to incorporate script notes, how not to be an asshole, and so forth — but the point should be clear and worth repeating: Learning the craft is much more than knowing how to write a screenplay..

It’s about becoming a screenwriter.

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

[Originally posted November 3, 2013]

30 Things About Screenwriting: Screenplays are stories, not formulas

July 2nd, 2015 by

William Goldman has famously written, “Screenplays are structure.” That is true in a tangible sense because at some point, a script becomes a blueprint for the production of a movie. And in a very real way, everything hangs on the structure of the narrative – how one scene flows to the next, how the beginning is shaped, how the middle is crafted, how the ending plays out, even the designations of scenes – Exterior, Interior, Day, Night – shape the nature of a film coming to life.

So Goldman’s assertion is true.

It is also problematic.

Somewhere along the line, screenplay structure started to become routinized. In part, this is because a certain segment of the screenwriting ‘guru’ caste generated some takes on what that structure is supposed to look like, each with their own system where this key plot point ought to land between these pages and that major plot point needs to hit between those pages, a script needs X amount of acts, sequences, beats, etc.

Over time, structure was reduced to paradigm. Paradigm transmogrified into formula. And that contributed to perhaps the most common complaint among those in the Hollywood movie development arena foraging through mounds of submissions: formulaic scripts.

As screenwriter David Seltzer (The Omen, Punchline) has said, “If you go in with formula, you come out with formula.”

This approach may have worked in the 80s and into the 90s with Hollywood churning out one high concept movie after another, but the inherent problem with a formula is it eventually wears out its welcome. Why? Because if the audience knows a formula well enough, they can anticipate precisely where a movie is heading, and that eviscerates almost any possibility for genuine entertainment.

Little wonder that contemporary audiences, their minds cluttered with tropes, memes and patterns, are looking for something different. By and large happy endings still, but how the story gets from FADE IN to FADE OUT, that needs to be a rocking ride of twists and turns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

And right there is the key. Did you catch it? The one word that is a writer’s salvation when it comes to formula.


A story roils with potential to go anywhere and do anything. Its characters are active sentient beings who live in the moment and can make any of a myriad of choices.

If you create multidimensional characters, conflicted, confused, driven, uncertain, and all the rest, they will resist formula because they are living, dynamic entities who can surprise us.

And when a story plays against type and expectations, that’s when a writer is on the path toward a great screenplay.

Again from David Seltzer: “The whole thrill of being a writer is to do a prototype every time out. And you can do it, something that nobody ever wrote before.”

A prototype every time out. In other words, meet the story on its terms, allow it to breathe, enable it to go where it needs to go, not cram it into some sort of predetermined formula.

I understand this desire to reduce the mysteries of a story to something manageable, a nice little system to speed our way through the writing process, an approach we can duplicate time after time to ensure we churn out scripts in an efficient and timely manner.

But efficiency and timeliness – and most of all formula — do not sell a script. Rather a distinctive concept, compelling characters, and a narrative that moves in unforeseen and unexpected ways, those are key to crafting a marketable script.

So as you wander through the noisy spectrum of people pitching you this or that screenplay paradigm or methodology, be sure to remember this one essential fact:

Screenplays are stories… not formulas.

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

[Originally posted November 2, 2013]

30 Things About Screenwriting: There is no right way to write

July 1st, 2015 by

This month, a series of 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.

Today: There is no right way to write.

It is perhaps the single most fundamental truth about screenwriting in particular and writing in general that I know…

There is no right way to write.

No single formula.
No one system.
No mystical process that guarantees success.

Think about it: Why should there be?

Stories are organic.
Living, breathing, malleable entities.
They are not widgets.

We work on them tirelessly.
We engage them fully with our minds and hearts.
We write… and rewrite… and rewrite some more…

Yet with all that conscious effort and intentionality, there is always some element of magic to the story-crafting process.
And no one has discovered a way to box up that magic into a universal approach for every writer.

Each of us has to find our own way.

We can – and probably should – seek out as much advice as possible.
Wisdom from our writing peers.
Study, analyze, ingest.

But our paths as writers are individual ones.

Whatever he says about his writing…
Whatever she says about her writing…

That can be informative, instructive, even inspirational.

But that is about their path.

Your path?
The process of being a writer is about carving out your own way.

Yes, it would be easier if there was one right way to write.
But then all our stories would be pretty much the same.
Besides whoever said writing was supposed to be easy?

So learn what you can along the way.
Listen to the Masters, actual writers who have successfully created a sustainable path of their own.
Test out a variety of approaches.
Try tips you pick up here and there.
Always be learning.

However at the end of the day…
It’s about you…
Your Creative Self…
And your Stories.

There is no right way to write…

But there is your way.

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

[Originally posted November 1, 2013]

2015 Scene-Writing Challenge: The Last Day!

June 30th, 2015 by

Today is the final day of the 2015 Scene-Writing Challenge. For background and to learn how you can win a free one-week online Core class with me, go here.

For the Week 1 writing prompts, go here.

Week 2 – here.

Week 3 – here.

Week 4 – here.

Writers who have met the challenge and won a free Core class with me: Ricardo Bravo, Roy Gordon, Tillery Johnson, James Verdell, Liz Warner, and Kara Wexler with many more on their way.


Good luck!

UPDATE: More winners including Katie Cobb, Susan Hildebrand, Uzma Khan, Gisela Wehri, Susan Winchell, and Zimra Yetnikoff.

Plot = Structure

June 29th, 2015 by

A screenplay is a unique literary form. It both tells a story and serves as a blueprint to make a movie. As such, understanding structure is a critical component to the craft. Check out the observations of these screenwriting veterans:

“The reality is that the single most important thing contributed by the screenwriter is the story structure.”

— William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride)

“The construction is the most important thing. It’s like building a house–you have to build the outside properly before you put the bits and pieces inside afterward. Get your story, get your architecture right, and you can always add your dialogue afterwards.”

— Charles Bennett (The 39 Steps, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea)

In the Core content of The Quest, we work with eight screenwriting principles, and the very first one is this:

Plot = Structure

On Monday, July 6, I will be starting a new cycle of Core classes, eight of them in all, beginning with Core I: Plot. In this 1-week online course, you will learn the importance of Plot = Structure as well as:

  • Key theoretical concepts from Aristotle, Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung
  • The reality of Hollywood and the “Whammo” theory
  • The External World and Internal World of a screenplay universe
  • Metamorphosis: Screenplay structure grounded in character
  • Analysis of movies including Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Silence of the Lambs, Shakespeare in Love, The Verdict, The Sixth Sense, Up, and others

And much more.

The course consists of four components:

  • Lectures: There are six lectures written by me, each posting Monday through Saturday.
  • Logline Workshop: This optional writing exercise offer you the opportunity to workshop one of your own loglines.
  • Teleconference: We will have a Skype teleconference call to discuss course material.
  • Forums: The online course site has 24/7 forums where you may post questions and we engage in conversation about the craft.

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.

If you’re new to screenwriting, have intermediate experience, or you’ve read it all, but want to learn the basics of what I teach in The Quest — character based screenwriting — here is your chance to learn the foundation of screenplay structure that goes beyond formula.

Core I: Plot is one of eight classes in the Core curriculum. Here is the schedule for all of them this fall:

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 9 – Core VII: Theme
December 2 – 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.

Go beyond formula and learn a character-based approach to screenwriting and screenplay structure.

For information on Core I: Plot, go here.

For The Core Package, go here.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

Paul Schrader’s take on “there are no rules to beak”

June 29th, 2015 by

For years, I have argued that there are no screenwriting rules. In March 2014, I codified my thinking on the subject with a 15-part series called So-Called Screenwriting ‘Rules’.

My fundamental points: If there were rules, there would be rule books, and there is no such thing. Second, rules constrict creativity which is the opposite of what writing should be about.

Recently writer-director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) tweeted this about the new indie movie Me and Earl and The Dying Girl:

Schrader frames the argument about filmmaking in an historical context. In the post-World War II era, there were rules. The next generation learned the rules, then broke them. This generation of filmmakers doesn’t know of any rules. “There are no rules to break.”

We see this in screenwriting today. Whether it’s Dan Gilroy creating zero ‘likeable’ characters in Nightcrawler (although they are compelling as hell)… J.C. Chandor writing a 31-pages feature length screenplay (All Is Lost)… or countless movies which provide scant setup or background on Protagonist characters before they are off and running in the plot (e.g., Hanna, Ex Machina), writers are stretching the presumed boundaries of conventional screenwriting.

There are conventions, common practices, and expectations. We can and should be aware of them. But there are no rules to break… because there are no rules.

Find your voice. Express your creativity. And write a damn good story. That should be your focus.

2015 Scene-Writing Challenge: Week 4

June 27th, 2015 by

Here are all of Week 4’s prompts for this year’s Scene-Writing Challenge:

Day 16: A scene with just one word of dialogue.

Day 17: A scene at a sporting event.

Day 18: Someone is brought to tears.

Day 19: Getting a traffic ticket.

Day 20: En route to the hospital to have a baby.

For the Week 1 writing prompts, go here.

For the Week 2 writing prompts, go here.

Fore the Week 3 writing prompts, go here.

For background on the Challenge and to learn how you can win a free one-week online Core class with me, go here.