A different approach to “theme”

October 24th, 2016 by

Nearly everything I’ve ever read on the subject of ‘theme’ in relation to screenwriting has felt either confusing or impractical.

What does theme mean? How should we understand it? How can we use it in our writing?

The ironic thing is theme is incredibly important:

* Important in helping us find the focus of our story.

* Important in mining the story’s emotional and psychological depth.

* Important in elevating the impact of the events that transpire in our story.

That is why I created Core VII: Theme. And starting Monday, October 31, I will be teaching this unique one-week online screenwriting class.

The course, one of eight Core writing theory courses I have created, consists of six lectures I wrote, 24/7 message board discussions, insider tips, and an optional writing exercise to workshop one of your stories. All of those you can do on your own time, everything from downloading and reading lectures to posting comments.

There is also a 90-minute teleconference between class participants and myself where we discuss the course content and anything screenwriting related.

In this course:

  • You will learn a coherent take on theme, how it relates to the overall story, and tips on how to weave thematic material into your scripts.
  • You can put to use what you have learned by workshopping one of your own stories.

Scripts we will study in the class: The King’s Speech, The Silence of the Lambs, Tootsie, The Shawshank Redemption, Bull Durham, As Good As It Gets, The Dark Knight, The Social Network among others.

When I introduced this class, the response from participants was hugely favorable, the major sentiment that this approach to theme not only clears up a confusing subject, but also provides practical tools a writer can use to work with themes in their own stories. Like this testimonial:

Your “Theme” class for aspiring screenwriters is not just helpful, it is essential. From the personal attention to the numerous “A-Ha!” moments throughout the class, I was thrilled to simply KEEP LEARNING. How many teachers can boast about that with their students? — Heather Thompson

So sign up now for the class which begins next Monday, October 31!

I look forward to working with you!

Free Screenwriting Resource: Scene Description Spotlight

October 24th, 2016 by

Learning the craft of screenwriting involves… well… everything. That includes something as basic as this: How to write scene description. You know, all those pesky nouns, adjectives, and verbs we use to convey action. Like this in Lethal Weapon:

And jumps the railing. Plummets, head over heels like a 
rag doll. Hits the yellow car spot on. She lies, dead, 
like an extinguished dream. Still beautiful.

And this from Wall-E:

Eve descends gently to the ground...
Wally sneaks up closer.
Hides behind another boulder.
Makes a NOISE.
Instantly, Eve whips around.
Her arm converts into a LASER CANNON.
Blasts Wally's boulder to smithereens.

...Smoke clears...All quiet.

Eve, now cold and dangerous.

That’s why I have run a series: Scene Description Spotlight, dozens of excerpts from movie scripts featuring action writing by some of the best Hollywood screenwriters. For that resource, go here.

Go here to access links to all of the select group of Free Screenwriting Resources from Go Into The Story.

Each day in October, I’m going to highlight a screenwriting resource available on the blog. Why? Because with over 20,000 posts and 80+ archived topics, I want to make sure readers are aware of the many assets available here for reading and research. And they are all free!

Writing Lessons from Black List Feature Writers Lab Mentors

October 24th, 2016 by

Last week, I was one of 7 mentors for 7 writers selected for the 2016 Black List Feature Writers Lab. It was a remarkable week filled with fantastic activities, but the focus was the one-on-one writer-mentor sessions and group workshops which I led. Check out this list of mentors:

Stephany Folsom (THOR: RAGNAROK)

Eric Heisserer (ARRIVAL)


Scott Neustadter (THE FAULT IN OUR STARS)

Kirsten Smith (LEGALLY BLONDE)

Victoria Strouse (FINDING DORY)

I spent time with each of them. In addition, I asked each of the lab participants to review what the mentors had told them about their stories and writing in general. Here are a few insights derived from these Black List lab mentors:

    • Characters: Learn more about them, drill down into them, have them inform your plot, and just in general embrace the character-development process to the max. The more you know about your characters, the more your story will reflect the world views and personalities of its key players.
    • Dig deeper: You may think you know your characters, but it’s almost a lock you can come to know more by immersing yourself in your story universe.
    • Need: What lies at the core of your Protagonist’s psychological state? What is it about the specific journey on which they embark which feeds and informs their character arc?
    • Write from passion: Find your emotional connection to the story and write from that place. This is key to crafting stories which lift up off the page and into a reader’s imagination.

Finally there’s this: Work your ass off. You may think once you sell a spec and break into the business, the hard part is over. Wrong. It’s not easy starting out. It’s not easy afterward either.

Picture this: On Friday at 6:30PM, I emerged from the lab’s final group workshop, exhausted from our analysis and brainstorming, heading off to have a drink with everyone. There seated just outside the bar was ‘Kiwi’ Smith. Over the last two days, she had worked one-on-one with 6 of the lab writers. That means she had to read and critique 6 feature length scripts. This along with multiple projects on which she is working. Indeed, the reason why she was plunked down outside the bar, tapping away on her computer? Finishing up a treatment for one of her multiple writing-producing projects.

As a writer, it just never ends. You have to have the fortitude to push yourself, be creative, and be productive.

Work. Your. Ass. Off. Whether you’re outside looking in or inside the system, you have to embrace the spirit of hard work. Someone may have more talent. Someone may have more connections. But no one should outwork you.

Sage advice from a week spent with some of Hollywood’s best and most in-demand screenwriters.

Free Screenwriting Resource: 115 Words for “Walks” / 90 Words for “Looks”

October 21st, 2016 by

Other than poetry, there may be no narrative platform where every word choice is as critical as it is in a screenplay. Whenever we write a scene, we use words to create images… because movies are primarily a visual medium.

So when I teach and work with writers, I stress the importance of loving the language. Use it. Vivid descriptors… and especially active verbs.

To that end, I was pleased when GITS reader Alan Donahue put together lists of alternates for two verbs I see overused in scripts waaaaaaaaaayyyy too much: Walk and Look. There are times when they are appropriate, but honestly, why have a character walk when they can stumble, shuffle, stride, or strut?

Cat Strut

Why have them look when they can ogle, leer, stare or glare?


Motion. Pictures. Both words imply the imagematic nature of the medium. Therefore use your words!

You can download the PDF 115 Words for “Walks” here and 90 Words for “Looks” here.

Go here to access links to all of the select group of Free Screenwriting Resources from Go Into The Story.

Each day in October, I’m going to highlight a screenwriting resource available on the blog. Why? Because with over 20,000 posts and 80+ archived topics, I want to make sure readers are aware of the many assets available here for reading and research. And they are all free!

Free Screenwriting Resource: 200+ Story Ideas

October 20th, 2016 by

Every April for 7 years, I have run a monthly series: A Story Idea Each Day for a Month. Over the course of 12 months, I’ll flag 30 story ideas I find in my daily trek through all of my news sources and write posts about them. And here’s the thing: I give them away for free. If you like any of the ideas, they are yours to use however you like.

How to come up with a story idea

I run the series every year to drive home this point:


You can write a spec screenplay that is professional in every way, yet if the story concept is a mediocre or even average one, chances are extremely slim that script will sell.

You have to look everyday and everywhere for the very best story ideas.

Here are links to 7 years worth of story ideas. Over 200 of them. Free for you to adopt and adapt however you’d like!

Go here to the links to all 200+ story ideas, free for you to use however you’d like.

Go here to access links to all of the select group of Free Screenwriting Resources from Go Into The Story.

Each day in October, I’m going to highlight a screenwriting resource available on the blog. Why? Because with over 20,000 posts and 80+ archived topics, I want to make sure readers are aware of the many assets available here for reading and research. And they are all free!

Free Screenwriting Resource: Scene-Writing Exercises

October 19th, 2016 by

At a fundamental level, screenwriting is scene-writing. Refining your ability to structure and write a strong scene is critical to mastering the craft. For four years, I have run a month-long scene-writing challenge, complete with a prompt each day. Here are some examples:

A character has to say goodbye to a good friend without actually saying s/he is leaving and won’t be back

A chase scene without cars

A scene featuring two characters sitting on the edge of a bridge

A scene with a cliffhanger

Someone talking to a gravestone

Here are links to all of the prompts:

2013 Scene-Writing Challenge

2014 Scene-Writing Challenge

2015 Scene-Writing Challenge

2016 Scene-Writing Challenge

Go here to access links to all of the select group of Free Screenwriting Resources from Go Into The Story.

Each day in October, I’m going to highlight a screenwriting resource available on the blog. Why? Because with over 20,000 posts and 80+ archived topics, I want to make sure readers are aware of the many assets available here for reading and research. And they are all free!

Screenplays are stories, not formulas

October 18th, 2016 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.


Cary Grant reading a script along with a friend

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.

Reader Question: Are there any script rules that really shouldn’t be broken?

October 18th, 2016 by

From @CaveDude21:

I know all rules are made to be broken, but are there any Script rules that really shouldn’t?

I don’t think there are any rules for screenwriting. There are important principles, and dozens of tips and techniques. There is also a lot of ‘conventional wisdom’ floating around that gets transmogrified into being perceived as rules, and that is where the problem lies.

Stories are organic. Even in a screenplay, which is heavily structured by virtue of it being the blueprint for producing a movie, the underlying story — that universe, its characters, the events that transpire there — all have to feel alive, spontaneous, and native to that narrative environment.

Enter the plethora of screenwriting approaches, theories, paradigms, models, and formulas. While some of them reflect dynamics that are innate to story itself and what people expect when they read or see a story, once they get codified in the minds of writers, a big problem arises: The writer can write to the formula instead of to the story. Hence all the complaints from moviegoers about formulaic movies. And by the way, the complaint exists within Hollywood script development circles, too, as folks there often lament being forced to read one formulaic script after another.

Besides if you give me a supposed screenwriting rule, I am 99% positive I can come up with a movie that breaks it.

Movies have to be told with a linear narrative. Consider Memento, Pulp Fiction, or Betrayal.

Movies have to have a sympathetic Protagonist. Consider Sideways, As Good As It Gets, and Taxi Driver.

Movies always have to have a happy ending. Consider Citizen Kane, Shakespeare in Love, and Manon des Sources.

There are scripts where the screenwriter breaks the 4th wall and ‘talks’ to the script reader [The Last Boy Scout by Shane Black]. There are scripts that have sides of dialogue one page long or longer [Network by Paddy Chayefsky]. I remember reading a script by Justin Zackham [The Bucket List] that was in the 2nd person [“You turn on the light. You open the door.”]

Should we let ‘rules’ restrict our creativity? I should think not!

My advice: Learn the conventional wisdom, what is pretty much the standardized approach to screenwriting. It’s not hard to do, you can go virtually anywhere online and pick up the supposed ‘rules’ in a matter of a few months.

Then write. Experiment. Read scripts. Write some more. You are developing your own voice, your own style, gaining confidence in who you are as a writer.

Then if you develop a story that requires you to break a supposed ‘rule,’ absolutely will make for a better read if you go against convention, do it. You have to be smart, you have to be judicious, and you have to know what you’re doing. Most of all, you have to believe in yourself and in your story. But you should have the freedom to make those choices and dismiss the negative nabobs of negativism [homage to Spiro Agnew there].

In all cases, the story rules.

Having said all that, I do confess to having one semi-rule. It pertains to first drafts. And that semi-rule is this: “Finish the damn thing!” I’ve seen far too many writers fade out before hitting… you know… FADE OUT. Even if what you write is certifiable crap, you can always rewrite it. Plus I guarantee that you will learn a ton about your story and characters in the process that you would not have if you quit.

That’s it, my only screenwriting semi-rule. As far as the other ‘rules’ go, you have to figure them out on your own, then become your own writer.

My advice: In all cases, story trumps formula, story trumps ‘rules,’ story trumps all.

What say ye, GITS readers? What’s your take on rules? Feel free to disagree with me. Maybe there are some rules that simply can’t be broken. If so, what would you say they are?

[Originally posted June 6, 2012]

Ctrl, Alt, Del: Three Act Structure

October 17th, 2016 by

I’m always looking for different ways to think about story structure because you never know when some metaphor or language is going to resonate with one of my blog readers, suddenly the proverbial light bulb going off in their minds: “Oh, now I get it!”

So a few weeks back as I was staring at my keyboard, lost in that haze writers slip into when they lose momentum in their writing and drift into a kind of mental never-never land, my eyes landed on those familiar keys on my Mac:


I found this technical definition of what has come to be known as the “three finger salute”:

In a personal computer with the Windows operating system, Ctrl-Alt-Delete is the combination of keyboard keys that the computer user can press at the same time to terminate an application task or to reboot the operating system (have it shut down and restart itself).

That got me thinking: If, as Joseph Campbell asserts, the whole point of The Hero’s Journey is transformation, might we not think of that as rebooting the character’s operating system (i.e., way of being)?

So then I looked at those three keys as designations for three act structure:

Control (Act One): In their days leading up to FADE IN, the Protagonist has managed to cobble together a life, aggregating beliefs and behaviors, defense mechanisms and coping skills. They probably think they are in control, they’ve got their act together. However as Campbell says, “They are just making do and they need to change.” In fact, they need to lose that sense of control in order to discover their Core Essence which is lying dormant within.

Alternate (Act Two): Compelled out of their Ordinary World or Existence into a New World, they experience an alternate way of being, increasingly rejecting how they used to live while embracing their True Self which now, freed from Control, emerges into consciousness and the light of day.

Delete (Act Three): Their Inauthentic Way of Being, where they started their journey, falls by the wayside replaced by Authentic Nature. The old is deleted. The new is embraced. Through all the challenges and tests, they have been transformed.

So the next time you’re at your keyboard, consider those three keys: control / alt / delete. See if they resonate at all with you in terms of three act structure.

Free Screenwriting Resource: Dialogue! Dialogue! Dialogue!

October 17th, 2016 by

If you need some inspiration writing dialogue, boy, have we got you covered! Every single day this blog has been in existence, I have featured a post called Daily Dialogue. We are talking over 3,000 posts spotlighting notable movie dialogue. You can check out the posts year by year:

Black List Live! event featuring great dialogue

And check this out: The GITS Daily Dialogue Topic Index! You can read about Liz and Allie, two sisters who are big fans of the blog, and were inspired to create the index.

Either way, a great resource for writers looking for inspiration for their own dialogue writing.

Go here to access links to all of the select group of Free Screenwriting Resources from Go Into The Story.

Each day in October, I’m going to highlight a screenwriting resource available on the blog. Why? Because with over 20,000 posts and 80+ archived topics, I want to make sure readers are aware of the many assets available here for reading and research. And they are all free!