Should a writer ever ‘wear’ a producer’s hat?

May 26th, 2015 by

Being a military brat, I like schedules. That extends to Twitter. So for the last few months at 9:15AM Eastern, I have taken to tweeting short musings about the craft of screenwriting. Here are a few of them:

There are no screenwriting rules. There are conventions, patterns, paradigms. Know them, but don’t let them constrain your creativity.

Sometimes the BEST dialogue is NO dialogue. The silence in the moment or between characters can speak volumes.

There is one incontrovertible, unassailable rule about a first draft and it is this: Get the damn thing done!

They generate a fair share of retweets and favorites, so I figure there’s a place for them, and continue to add to the roster.

On Saturday, I tweeted this:

To test a story concept, ask: Is it big enough to be a movie? Can I ‘see’ the trailer? Will people pay $10 for this movie?

That created a little disturbance in the Force.

That led to a series of other tweets critical of my advice:

Anybody who knows me and has read this blog for any length of time understands my passion for and support of writers from all backgrounds, from anywhere in the world, and with different, unique voices. That’s one of the reasons I’m proud to be partnered with the Black List as Franklin Leonard and I share that commitment.

So per my tweet, I dashed off an email to Brian Koppelman in which I wrote this:

I was directing it [the tweet] toward those writers who consciously traffic in what they hope are mainstream, commercial projects. So the tweet would have been better to read: “One way to test the commercial viability of a story concept is to ask, Is it big enough to be a movie etc”.

Then I tweeted something to the effect, this conversation deserved more time, not appropriate for Twitter, so here we are.

First a clarification: I did not take the content of the tweet from “Save the Cat”. I have never read any of those books, so it would have been impossible for me to have cribbed the lines from that source. Where I did hear it was from one of my first agents Marty Bauer. Marty knew something about the business. That should be evident by the fact he sold the movie rights to Gay Talese’s book “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” for $2.5M after he turned down an initial offer of $1.5M. What Marty said to me, specifically about assessing the marketable strength of a story concept, was to ask these questions: Who is the audience? Will they be willing to pay $5 to go see this movie in a theater? In my tweet, I adjusted it to $10 in an attempt to take into account inflation. Someone later tweeted this:

I never forgot that piece of advice from Marty and for decades now as I’ve generated literally thousands of story ideas, those have been some of the questions I’ve asked to assess their commercial viability. And sometimes, I should note, I have chosen to write a spec script when I knew it would be a hard sell. Why? Because I was completely passionate about the idea.

[Note: Whenever someone asks me if they should write this or that idea, I always hit on this: What is your emotional connection to the story? If they are absolutely in love with it, I will advise them to go ahead and write it, even if it seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. So the $10 ticket question is not a game-ender, just one of a set of questions to ask when assessing a story concept.]

The other questions from my tweet — Is it big enough to be a movie? Can I ‘see’ the trailer — come from another source: screenwriter-director-producer John Swetnam. From my March 2011 interview with John:

If you want to write “Hollywood” movies then the biggest question you have to ask yourself when you come up with an idea is, can you really see this opening at your local theater next weekend? I mean, really? What does the trailer look like when it comes on TV? You have to be brutally honest with yourself and most people just aren’t.

Then John followed up with what I thought was an interesting process for developing and writing scripts:

My process works like this. I come up with an idea and then I put on my “producer” hat. What’s the budget, genre, tone? Where does it fit in the market place? Who would I cast in it? Who would direct? What’s the trailer, poster? Who’s my audience, etc, etc, etc? If I can answer all these questions clearly and I’m still pumped then I know I have something that I can dig into. That’s when I put on my “writer” hat and forget the rest and start exploring the story and the characters. I have put myself inside a box and now I can really get creative. I constantly ask myself if I think what I’m doing is cool. Do I love this? Am I excited to see it on screen? The ball usually just starts rolling and I put together a pretty fast beat sheet. Then I do a treatment and get feedback on it asap. I love feedback. If I’m still feeling good, then I rewrite the treatment a few times before I go into a really detailed outline. Then I set it aside for a while and work on other stuff. If I come back to it after a week, read it, and still love it, I do some more rewrites and then kill the first draft. I do tend to write and rewrite as I go along, but I can pump out a first draft in under a week. Then I put on my “director” hat and really dig into the tiny details and make sure I know the answer to every possible question that might come up. What if an actor asked me this? What if the production design wanted to know about this, etc, etc? Only after I’ve worn all three hats, which means at least three drafts on my own, I get more feedback, take more time away and rewrite and rewrite and get more feedback until I honestly think it’s as good as I can get it.

So in order to make this conversation something which can shed more light than heat, let’s pose this question: Should a writer ever ‘wear’ a producer’s hat? And specifically in the earliest stages of story development – when considering whether to pursue a story idea?

By the way in my email to Brian, I forwarded him this quote:

“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)

This is really the place I’m coming from with this subject, at least insofar as writers who dream of trafficking in mainstream, commercial Hollywood movies. Through my writing, teaching, and blogging, I’ve intersected with literally thousands of writers and their story ideas. A number of them have been great. Many of them have been good. But a lot of them have not felt like a movie to me.

Now I’ll be the first person to admit I can be wrong, one big honking example of which I wrote about here. However even if I can be wrong in my assessment of individual ideas, I believe this to be true: A writer’s chances of succeeding with a spec script depend not only on their writing, but also the strength of the underlying story concept.

So the real point of my tweet was to push people to come up with the strongest idea possible. Not go with the first or second concept that pops into their mind, but go for something better. Their original idea may be the one to pursue, but I would think that it is generally worth the due diligence to check out other possibilities.

For some writers, putting on a producer’s hat might be the ‘wrong’ thing. So in that sense, Brian is right to call me out. However if that’s true, the inverse also can be true: For some writers, putting on a producer’s hat to ask who the audience is for a potential movie, can they really see the trailer, can they honestly imagine people spending $10 to see the movie in a theater, those questions may be precisely what they need to elevate and focus their creativity. Apparently it works for John Swetnam who has been quite successful over the last several years. Then again, John makes no bones about it: He wants to write and direct commercial Hollywood movies.

Bottom line, I don’t think it’s an either or situation. As I’ve said constantly on the blog over the years, every writer is different. There is no one right way to write. Some people’s creativity may be squashed by thinking about things like commercial viability, target audiences, budgets and the like. Others may actually thrive by considering those.

So in actuality, the question of whether a writer should put on a producer’s hat when considering what project to write boils down to a bigger consideration: What type of writer are you? Do you want to try to write mainstream movies for Hollywood? Maybe thinking like a producer and studying market trends will help you. Then again, maybe not. Or do you prefer to say, “Screw that, I’m going to write what I’m passionate about, regardless of any of those so-called commercial considerations.” That may end up helping you achieve your creative ambitions. Or maybe not.

I wrote a post some time ago which may have some relevance: Write what you’re buying or sell them your dream. Again, I’m not advocating for any one way. This is something each writer has to figure out for him/herself.

Where does that leave us? An opportunity for each of us to reflect on who we are as creatives. Certainly in a business of which William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything,” it’s probably wise to consider alternatives. If, however, you know what works for you, great. Do that!

As always my hope is for each of you to find meaning in your writing, write the best you can, and hopefully those efforts will bring you success… however you choose to define that.


UPDATE: Talk about synchronicity. Here is some John Swetnam news that just hit:

News of splashy deals for finished films, sizzle reels and scripts with talent attachments made on the Croisette will continue to be unveiled for the next few weeks. Here’s one that got done just before the fest market closed. Maple Leaf Films’ Tove Christensen and Michael Wexler agreed to finance and produce Spectrum, a science fiction thriller that John Swetnam will direct. It’s based on his idea and was scripted by Lex Edness. 13 Films’ Tannaz Anisi is handling international rights and Swetnam’s Paradigm reps will broker the domestic deal. Casting on Spectrum is underway for a fall shoot.

What’s the idea John came up with?

After inventing a technology that not only proves the existence of ghosts but can actually see them, a renowned scientist does a final experiment on a human test subject that goes horribly wrong. Decades later, when his son and a group of colleagues discover the secret high-tech laboratory where the experiment took place, they find themselves battling a vengeful force.

Evidently when John hit on this story concept, he decided it felt like a movie to him, he could actually imagine it opening in theaters, and that people would want to go see it.

Congratulations, John!

UPDATE #2: From Jim Douglas in comments:

“Unless you’re financing and filming your own movie, you better damn well consider who is going go watch it because you can be sure that the people you’re trying to sell it to will be thinking that. If you want to write a 300 page opus on the depressing downward spiral of an alcoholic janitor that never leaves his apartment and only talks to his plants, you go right ahead and get down with your bad self… But don’t be deluded enough to assume that the script will have a prayer of finding a financier, either.

Writing is communication. Always know your audience; whether that audience is only yourself or the entire population of this planet, if you don’t consider that audience then you’re just shouting in the dark. As a writer your job is to give people what they never knew they wanted, but if you don’t know the difference between what they have and what they don’t, then that is an impossible task.”

Coming in June: Another Scene-Writing Challenge!

May 25th, 2015 by

Back for the third year in a row, it’s our annual Scene-Writing Challenge! In June, every Monday-Friday at noon Eastern / 9AM Pacific, I will upload a post with a prompt for writing a script scene. Each day, write a scene per those guidelines. If you really want to get in the spirit of things, upload your scene here in the comments section of the original post. That way you can critique others’ pages and receive feedback on your scene as well.

Why scene-writing? Think about it: If the average scene is 1 1/2 to 2 pages long and a script is 100-120 pages, then a screenwriter writes between 50-80 scenes per screenplay. Thus in a very real way, screenwriting is scene-writing. The better we get at writing scenes, it stands to reason the better we get as a screenwriter.

Plus there’s this: To provide extra motivation for this series — to get people to WRITE PAGES — I am giving away some of my Core classes to Scene-Writing Challenge participants. That’s right: For free!

The Core curriculum provides a comprehensive, coherent, character-based approach to screenwriting theory, eight 1-week online classes. I only teach them once per year. Here is the upcoming schedule:

July 6 — Core I: Plot

July 20 — Core II: Concept

August 3 — Core III: Character

August 31 — Core IV: Style

September 28 — Cover V: Dialogue

October 12 — Core VI: Scene

November 9 — Core VII: Theme

December 2 — Core VIII: Time

Each is a 1-week online class featuring 6 lectures written by me, lots of screenwriting insider tips, logline workshops, optional writing exercises, 24/7 message board conversations, teleconferences with course participants and myself to discuss anything related to the craft of scriptwriting.

A popular option is the Core Package which gives you access to the content in all eight Craft classes which you can go through on your own time and at your own pace, plus automatic enrollment in each 1-week online course — all for nearly 50% the price of each individual class. If you sign up now, you can have immediate access to all of the Core content.

In June, to qualify to take one of my Craft classes for free, write and submit ten [10] Scene-Writing Challenge posts, then provide feedback on ten [10] posts from other writers. The former to get you writing, the latter to work your critical-analytical skills.

A chance to take any of my eight Core classes, interface with me online along with the usual stellar group of writers who take Screenwriting Master Class courses, while using writing exercises and feedback to upgrade your skill at writing and analyzing scenes?


You can check out the fruits of our collective labor from the last two years:

Scene-Writing Exercises (2013)

Scene-Writing Exercises (2014)

To get into the spirit of things for next month’s challenge, I’d like to solicit your suggestions for scene prompts. What are some cool ideas we could use to inspire some interesting scene-writing challenges?

I’d appreciate it if you’d take a few minutes and ponder that question, then head to comment with your ideas. If selected, I’ll give you a Hat Tip when we use your prompt next month.

It’s the 2015 Scene-Writing Challenge! Give a jolt to your creative and writing muscles… and win 1 free online class with yours truly.


“Everything is a Remix” – Billy Wilder style

May 25th, 2015 by

On Sundays, I’ve been taking a leisurely tour through the wonderful book “Conversations with Wilder”  which captures a series of talks between filmmaker Cameron Crowe (Say Anything, Singles, Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) and writer-director Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Witness for the Prosecution).

The last two posts just so happen to put a spotlight on one aspect of Wilder’s creative process: He took story ideas from preexisting movies.

If you go here, you can read about how Wilder’s inspiration for The Apartment derived from the 1945 movie Brief Encounter.

If you go here, you can see how Wilder took a good story concept from what he called an “absolutely terrible” movie Fanfare of Love (1932) and used that as the basis for Some Like It Hot.

In both cases, Wilder put his own creative stamp on the source material.

In terms of Brief Encounter, this is what Wilder had to say:

The origin of The Apartment was my seeing the very fine picture by David Lean, Brief Encounter [1945]. It was the story of a man who is having an affair with a married woman and comes by train to London. They go to the apartment of a friend of his. I saw it and I said, “What about the guy who has to crawl into the warm bed…?” That’s an interesting character. Then I put that down, and put down some other things in my notebook. The hero of that thing was the guy who endured this, who was introduced to it all by a lie. One guy in his company needed to change his clothes, he said, and used the apartment…and that was it.

Wilder switched points of narrative perspective. He wasn’t interested in either party having the affair, rather what caught his creative imagination was the poor guy whose apartment the couple was using to conduct their tryst.

Likewise with Fanfare of Love, a German movie, Wilder said this:

The genesis of the idea was a very low-budget, very third-class German picture [Fanfares of Love, 1932] where two guys who need a job go into blackface to get into a band…they also dress up to go into a female band. But there was not one other thing that came from this terrible picture. We had to find, I thought, the key to why they go into that band and what keeps them there. If the gangsters who are chasing them see them as women, only as women, then…once they are seen as men, they are dead. It’s life and death. They cannot come out into the open. It’s a question of life and death. That triggered everything. So we began to have a picture.

Again Wilder put his stamp on an existing story conceit — guys dressed as women musicians — by elevating the stakes into a life or death situation.

Pondering the fact that Wilder, my favorite filmmaker of all time, openly admitted to in effect cribbing story ideas from other movies led me to a series of posts I did between 2010-2012, tracking the evolution of what became a 4-part video series called “Everything is a Remix” from Kirby Ferguson. Here are those four videos:

Part 1: The Song Remains the Same

Part 2: Remix Inc.

Part 3: Elements of Creativity

Part 4: System Failure

Takeaways? Well, the first thing is to remind ourselves everything has basically been done before. Any time we come up with a story concept, we are, whether we know it or not, standing on the shoulders of ideas similar to the ones which emerge into our consciousness.

The second thing is this: That reality just so happens to fit into Hollywood’s longstanding business ethos — similar but different. They prefer projects which are similar to films or TV series which have already proved to be successful, yet different enough to stand on their own two creative feet.

Clearly Wilder found the sweet ‘similar but different’ spot with both Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. There’s a lesson there for all of us which I’d like to apply when we reach the end of our current classic 1950’s movies, maybe try a bit of Wilder brainstorming. Look for that in a few days.

Personally I love the idea of looking at movies with great concepts poorly executed, then ‘rescuing’ them with a new treatment. The Bitter Script Reader just tweeted something on this yesterday:

What other inferior movies with great story concepts can you think of to rescue from the trash heap? Let’s see if we can come up with a list of them, movies that should be remade, only better, rather than great movies which should not be remade if only to make a buck.

“How to Write a Romcom”

May 25th, 2015 by

Tess Morris, screenwriter of the movie Man Up, starring Lake Bell and Simon Pegg, offers up some insight in a recent first-person essay in the Telegraph. Here are the first three of 10 things Tess advises for rom-com writers:

Four years ago I sat down to write the screenplay for my first romantic comedy, Man Up. It was set in London, and was my attempt to look at how romance works in the modern world, and whether you can truly have a blind date anymore. Now that screenplay has been turned into a film, starring Simon Pegg and Lake Bell. Here is what I learnt in the process: my 10 golden rules for how to write a romcom.


Romcom is the genre of film that people are most likely to dismiss. But I have always loved them. Long before the term “romcom” turned up in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1971, there were screwball classics such as Bringing Up Baby and Some Like It Hot. Every decade since has reinvented the romcom: Tootsie took a gender-bending approach in the Eighties; Muriel’s Wedding and Sideways focused, respectively, on relationships between two women, and two men; and more recently, Judd Apatow has given the genre his own unique, bromantic twist. The best way to pay homage to something is to make it your own.


The masterpieces of the genre – Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally, Nancy Meyers’s Something’s Gotta Give – achieve the perfect balance of romance and comedy. If something is making you laugh and cry, you’re watching a romcom (if you’re just crying, it’s probably The Notebook). When that equation works, it’s a beautiful thing to behold.


In Billy Mernit’s essential book Writing the Romantic Comedy (2000), he anatomises the critical elements of the romcom: the chemical equation – what do our two leads need from each other?; the infamous “cute meet” – the unique way we get them together; and the sexy complication turning point. But most importantly, Mernit says that you need to identify a big question, not “Will they or won’t they?” but “What is your film going to be about?” Is it about whether men and women can be friends without the sex part getting in the way (When Harry Met Sally)? Or is it about when to settle, or not settle, in a relationship (Moonstruck)? For me, Man Up is about when the time is right to let down your guard. Neither of my characters is willing to say: “I like you.” There is a constant push and pull between them, which is part of the problem in the dynamic of modern dating.

All this week, I will be featuring Tess in an interview I recently did with her.

Man Up opens this weekend in the United Kingdom.

By the way, I can attest to the book “Writing the Romantic Comedy.” Its author, Billy Mernit, and I have known each other for the better part of a decade. Indeed, his blog Living in the Romantic Comedy was one of the first ones I put onto this site’s Blogroll. Nice to see Billy’s expertise manifest itself in the writing and creative inspiration of Tess Morris.

For the rest of the Telegraph article, go here.

Go Into The Story Week In Review: May 18-May 24, 2015

May 24th, 2015 by

Links to this week’s most notable posts:

7 Character Development Keys

Classic 50s Movie: On the Beach

Classic 50s Movie: Pickpocket

Classic 50s Movie: Some Like It Hot

Classic 50s Movie: The Night of the Hunter

Classic 50s Movie: Singin’ in the Rain

Classic 50s Movie: Sunset Blvd.

Classic 50s Movie: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Conversations with Wilder: Part 20

Daily Dialogue theme for next week: Dating

Go Into The Story Script Reading & Analysis: The Imitation Game

Great Character: Ralph (“Wreck-It Ralph”)

Interview (Audio): Beau Willimon with Brian Koppelman

Interview (Video): George Miller

Interview (Written): Brad Bird

New GITS Initiative: FADE IN to FADE OUT in 1 Month

New GITS Initiative: Five Questions

New GITS Initiative: More Writing Challenges

New GITS Initiative: Movie Analysis

New GITS Initiative: Monthly Screenplay Workshop

On Writing: Isaac Asimov

Pixar’s “Inside Out”: Animated Emotions

Reader Question: Can characters “flip” archetype functions in a story?

Reader Question: If you could teach one scene, from paper to film, commenting on the art of collaboration, which would it be?

Reader Question: Is a character’s transformation dictated by events or reactions to them?

Reader Question: Should antagonists think they are the protagonists of their own stories?

Saturday Hot Links

Scene Description Spotlight: Express Your Voice

Screenwriting 101: Dan Gilroy

Screenwriting Lessons from George Miller and “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Screenwriting News (May 18-May 24, 2015)

Spec Script Deal: “Command & Control”

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 8]

New GITS Initiative: Five Questions

May 22nd, 2015 by

Over the weekend, Go Into The Story turned 7 years old. As that birthday approached, I thought it was a good time to step back and reflect about the blog. As part of that process, I invited your feedback here and here. The response has been great via the blog, email, and Twitter. So each day this week, I’d like to present some initiatives that have surfaced during this process. A few of them I’m just going to go ahead and take on. Some, however, I’m going to request your additional feedback.

Onward SM

New GITS Initiative: Five Questions

Over the last 3 years or so, I have conducted over 100 interviews with screenwriters, TV writers, filmmakers, managers, producers, and other industry types [you may access those archives here]. If you are familiar with my approach, what makes them distinctive is their in-depth nature and laser focus on exploring the worlds of creativity and entertainment through the eyes of a writer. They have become one of the most popular features of the blog.

I have discovered, however, that some people just don’t have the time to sit down for an intensive 60-75 minute interview session.

So I wondered this: What if I reached out to the GITS community to come up with five great questions to submit to pro writers? I believe I could land Q&A’s with many more writers if all they were doing was responding in writing and on their own time to five questions.

Of course, I will continue to pursue and do the GITS interview series. In fact, I’m in the process of lining up several for this summer. But this could be another way to present insight and inspiration from working film and TV writers.

Why are interviews an important part in learning the craft? Several reasons:

* You get exposed to a myriad of approaches to the creative and story-crafting process. Any time you read an interview with a pro writer, you may never know when you’ll discover some little nugget that could transform the way you write.

* Along with movies and movie scripts, interviews with pro writers are primary source material, offering you a direct engagement with the craft. This in contrast to books, webinars, and seminars by screenwriting ‘gurus’ who more than likely have never had anything produced.

* This previous point is important because unless someone has worked on the front lines of the film and TV business, gotten movies, series, and/or episodes produced, they just can’t learn some really important aspects of the craft and business of writing in the entertainment industry. Interviews with pro writers affords you access to that insight.

Therefore my question to you is about questions: What is an query you can come up which you would consider essential knowledge to learn from a pro writer?

Here is one I’ve been noodling around with: When you read a truly terrific script, what are some of the qualities of the writing that make it great? That seems like it could result in some really great takeaway for each of us about the craft.

How about you? If you could ask one question to a top professional film or TV writer, and your goal with that question was to generate the best, most valuable information, what would that question be?

Please head to comments with your suggestions. Goal: To find five really solid questions which I can use to approach. And by the way, if we get six or even seven great questions, we can include them all.

Thanks in advance for your suggestions!

To read about the new proposed Movie Analysis series, go here.

To read about the new proposed Monthly Screenplay Workshop proposal, go here.

To read about the new proposed More Writing Challenges, go here.

To read about the new proposed FADE IN to FADE OUT in 1 Month Challenge, go here.

And there’s this: Would you be interested in a Quest Writing Workshop?

If enough people enroll, I will conduct a three-day Quest Writing Workshop in Santa Monica, California in July, Friday, July 24-Sunday, July 26.

This is a chance for you to work with me on your story directly in a live setting.

For more information, go here. If you are interested, email me.

NOTE: We’re getting close. If 2 more people agree to enroll, I will give this workshop a green light.


New GITS Initiative: FADE IN to FADE OUT in 1 Month

May 21st, 2015 by

Over the weekend, Go Into The Story turned 7 years old. As that birthday approached, I thought it was a good time to step back and reflect about the blog. As part of that process, I invited your feedback here and here. The response has been great via the blog, email, and Twitter. So each day this week, I’d like to present some initiatives that have surfaced during this process. A few of them I’m just going to go ahead and take on. Some, however, I’m going to request your additional feedback.

Onward SM

New GITS Initiative: FADE IN to FADE OUT in 1 Month

In the past, I ran something called Go On Your Own Quest in which writers would prep and write the first draft of a feature length screenplay in a 16 week period. Recently someone suggested resurrecting this idea, only do it more like the NANOWRIMO initiative which takes place every November.

So why not this: We target a month, giving people time to prep their story, and during that month, they commit to writing a first draft of a screenplay.

We could have a post per day here on the blog with some inspirational bit from yours truly, then have participants check in with their daily progress. Maybe we could figure out some special treats along the way to reinforce each writer’s efforts. Happy to brainstorm this.

This is yet another effort to get writers writing. And one of the best ways to get yourself motivated to pound out a script is to make a public proclamation to that effect.

So any interest in this? What month should we do it in? If so, what should we call it? Maybe something to do with Vomit Draft. Or Muscle Draft. Get The Damn Thing Done Draft.

Let me know your thoughts.

To read about the new proposed Movie Analysis series, go here.

To read about the new proposed Monthly Screenplay Workshop proposal, go here.

To read about the new proposed More Writing Challenges, go here.

And there’s this: Would you be interested in a Quest Writing Workshop?

If enough people enroll, I will conduct a three-day Quest Writing Workshop in Santa Monica, California in July, Friday, July 24-Sunday, July 26.

This is a chance for you to work with me on your story directly in a live setting.

For more information, go here. If you are interested, email me.


Pixar’s “Inside Out”: Animated Emotions

May 21st, 2015 by

Every article I read about the upcoming Pixar movie Inside Out makes me want to see the movie NOW! This yearning goes beyond my obsession with Pixar arguably the most successful movie studio of all time. I mean look at this release slate!

Year                 Title                      Worldwide Gross        Rotten Tomatoes        IMDB

1995                Toy Story                     $361M                        92              8.2

1998                A Bug’s Life                  $363M                        91              7.3

1999                Toy Story 2                   $485M                        100             8.0

2001                Monsters, Inc.                $585M                        95              8.0

2003                Finding Nemo                  $868M                        98              8.2

2004                The Incredibles               $631M                        97              8.1

2006                Cars                          $461M                        74              7.4

2007                Ratatouille                   $621M                        98              8.1

2008                Wall-E                        $521M                        96              8.5

2009                Up                            $731M                        98              8.3

2010                Toy Story 3                   $1,063B                      99              8.6

2011                Cars 2                        $550M                        37              6.5

2012                Brave                         $535M                        82              7.7

2013                Monsters University           $743M                        83              7.5

Add it all up and you get a total worldwide box office gross of $8.5B with an average of $608M per film by far the highest of any studio in the history of Hollywood.

More numbers: Pixar films have garnered 26 Academy Awards, 7 Golden Globes, and 3 Grammy Awards.

Still more numbers: 7 of Pixar’s 14 films are in the IMDB Top 250 Movies of all time.

Behind all the numbers is the real reason for my obsession with Pixar. It’s their obsession with Story. They are all about Story.

Yet that is not the entirety of why I am so pumped to see Inside Out. What really has me going is the story concept. Here is a description written by the good folks at Pixar:

Growing up can be a bumpy road, and it’s no exception for Riley, who is uprooted from her Midwest life when her father starts a new job in San Francisco. Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. The emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley’s mind, where they help advise her through everyday life. As Riley and her emotions struggle to adjust to a new life in San Francisco, turmoil ensues in Headquarters. Although Joy, Riley’s main and most important emotion, tries to keep things positive, the emotions conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.

I’m thinking Inside Out may be the perfect movie for my take on Story because it is literally bouncing back and forth between the External World of the physical journey and the Internal World of the psychological journey. When I talk about characters starting off in a state of Disunity, about the plot servicing their transformation process whereby they get in touch will key aspects of their psyche as they move toward Unity, character archetypes, all of that stuff I blab about on the blog and in my classes, apparently that is what Inside Out traffics in — left, right, front, and center. Check out the trailer:

So I was particularly interested in an article I read yesterday from The Atlantic called “Pixar’s Mood Master,” a feature on one of their directors and members of the Braintrust, Pete Docter, co-writer and director of Inside Out. An excerpt from the article:

In 1943, Disney released an eight-minute film titled Reason and Emotion. The film personified the ability to think and the ability to feel as, respectively, a bespectacled, suit-wearing prig and an impulsive, lascivious caveman. “Within the mind of each of us,” intoned the narrator, “these two wage a ceaseless battle” for control of the (in the film, quite literal) mental steering wheel.

Sixty-six years later, when the animator, screenwriter, and director Pete Docter started planning Inside Out, his own film personifying the workings of the human mind, Reason and Emotion was one of the first references he consulted. He’d seen it before, as a cartoon-besotted child, and he remembered admiring its comic boldness. Watching the film again in 2009, however, he saw its limitations.

“It’s actually a propaganda film,” Docter told me during my recent visit to his office at Pixar Animation Studios, in Emeryville, California, across the bay from San Francisco… “The basic message was”—here Docter put on a stern voice and furrowed his enormous brow (his colleagues like to sketch him as a sunnier version of Frankenstein’s monster)—“Don’t let Hitler control you with fear!”

Reason and Emotion portrayed humans as automatons, and denigrated feelings as primitive and threatening. Docter knew that he wanted his own exploration of the human mind to put emotions front and center, and to treat them with more nuance. “More nuance” may, in fact, be a radical understatement. Inside Out, Docter’s third Pixar feature and arguably the company’s most ambitious film to date, is as bright and colorful as a Day-Glo pinball machine. But it is also as high-concept, narratively ornate, and psychologically intricate as a Christopher Nolan film—Inception by way of Fantasia.

Here is the short animated movie Reason and Emotion:

This whole discussion got me thinking about big summer movies, particularly the franchise films and popcorn movies featuring special effects and CGI out the arse. Why do some of them work so well and others leave me flat? And it all boils down to the characters and their emotional lives. In movies like The Avengers or Mad Max: Fury Road, the filmmakers paid attention to the psychological dimension of the characters, a level of nuance amidst the spectacle. Others? Not so much. Inauthentic characters. Manufactured emotions.

That made me wonder if the filmmakers, who may be awesome at imagining, constructing, and shooting incredibly challenging action sequences, have some sort of fundamental fear of “feelings as primitive and threatening”.

Not Pixar. They are unafraid of emotion. They understand the power of storytelling that connects with audiences on that level.

Another member of the Pixar Braintrust is Andrew Stanton, whose movie credits include Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and WALL-E. He did a TED Talk about storytelling that is excellent and speaks to the importance of exploring the emotional nature of narratives. He began the presentation with a joke, then said this:

We all love stories. We’re born from them. Stories are who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing has a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time – past, present and future – and allows us to experiences the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.

The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you know their story.” And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, “Make me care.”

Please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically… make me care.

Setting aside my affection for Pixar, I care about Inside Out even before I’ve seen it because of the emotions it arouses in me. I was an Air Force brat. I moved around a lot as a child. I can relate to that sense of displacement Riley feels having been transplanted from the Midwest to California. I can remember my turbulent adolescent years. As a parent, I have experienced one son going through adolescence and have another one smack in the middle of that stage right now. And the five emotions as characters in the movie — Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness — I’ve got them all at work in my psychological life.

This is not arbitrary. Pixar knew going in with this project they were dealing with a story setup that touches on several universal points of emotional connection.

So what am I saying? Pixar is great. Inside Out looks like a movie I’ll not only enjoy to the fullest, I’ll probably use it as inspiration for my teaching. And this takeaway for all of us as writers:

Don’t shy away from the emotional lives of our characters. You want to make a reader care about your script? Perhaps the single most important thing you can do is delve into the psychological dynamics at work with your characters, identifying universal themes, and get curious to see how they play out over the course of your story.

For the rest of The Atlantic article, go here.

New GITS Initiative: More Writing Challenges

May 20th, 2015 by

Over the weekend, Go Into The Story turned 7 years old. As that birthday approached, I thought it was a good time to step back and reflect about the blog. As part of that process, I invited your feedback here and here. The response has been great via the blog, email, and Twitter. So each day this week, I’d like to present some initiatives that have surfaced during this process. A few of them I’m just going to go ahead and take on. Some, however, I’m going to request your additional feedback.

Onward SM

New GITS Initiative: More Writing Challenges

One request I get every time I run a writing challenge is this: MORE!!! Some of that has to do with the free stuff I give away to qualifying participants. But enough people write to let me know they are genuinely excited about GITS providing an impetus for them to write.

Right now, we have two annual writing challenges on the books:

Dialogue Writing Challenge: During January, every participant who completes 10 of 20 exercises using dialogue prompts provided here and comments on 10 posts by other writers qualifies for a free Craft class, one of eight I offer through Screenwriting Master Class in the first half of the year.

Scene Writing Challenge: During June, every participant who completes 10 of 20 exercises using scene prompts provided here and comments on 10 posts by other writers qualifies for a free Core class, one of eight I offer through Screenwriting Master Class in the second half of the year.

Those are locked down in my calendar. In addition, I’ve run occasional challenges wherein participants come up with imaginative loglines using words from word clouds. The word clouds have derived from the loglines from all of that year’s spec script deals to loglines from all of the annual Black List scripts. Since those tend to overlap (the annual Black List comes out in December), what I could do is move the Black List Word Cloud Logline Challenge to April and the Spec Script Deal Word Cloud Logline Challenge to September, then we would have quarterly writing challenges. By the way, the Word Cloud Challenges tend to come with prizes as well including free script hosting on the Black List website and/or a 30 minute teleconference with yours truly.

But since I’m all about trying to get people to write, are there more writing challenge possibilities? Right now, we cover dialogue, scene, and loglines. What else could we do?

I am open to suggestion. Indeed let’s see if we can crowd-source at least two (2) new and different challenge concepts. I’m happy to offer free 1-week Core or Craft classes as prizes, as well as one-on-one half-hour calls with me.

So folks, got any ideas? If so, please head to comments with your thoughts.

To read about the new proposed Movie Analysis series, go here.

To read about the new proposed Monthly Screenplay Workshop proposal, go here.

And there’s this: Would you be interested in a Quest Writing Workshop?

If enough people enroll, I will conduct a three-day Quest Writing Workshop in Santa Monica, California in July. This is a chance for you to work with me on your story directly in a live setting.

Possible weekends:

Friday, July 17-Sunday, 19

Friday, July 24-Sunday, July 26

For more information, go here. If you are interested, email me.


Screenwriting Lessons from George Miller and “Mad Max: Fury Road”

May 20th, 2015 by

If you haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road, you absolutely must. Even if you’re not that big of an action movie fan, this is one of those rare cinematic events — and it is that — where everything works. Most importantly for me, the spectacle is grounded in character, so the amazing, breathless action on screen actually means something. Speaking for myself, there are moments in the movie, the quieter ones between some key characters, where I felt more emotion than in some dramas I’ve seen recently.

Here are some excerpts from a feature Anne Thompson did based on her interview with the movie’s co-writer / director George Miller. I believe these are spoiler safe, nothing more than what you may have seen in the movie’s trailer. See if you can identify the thread that weaves through them:

“Things develop organically,” Miller said. “You create the architecture for the story once. The characters almost guide you one way or the other.”


“Max starts off with a purpose: how to become free?” said Miller. “He’s a caged animal, and bit by bit he finds some freedom. He’s always manacled to problems: “get that thing off his face!” When he finally does, once again he’s manacled to some sense of honor or obligation, and maybe a little flicker of humanity that draws him in. Again that came out of where the character was. There was a guy who’s really damaged, literally a caged animal.”

The central images of the movie’s extended chase came to Miller on a long flight to Australia. “I never intended to make another ‘Mad Max’ movie,” he said. He saw five wives fleeing a warlord.


Thus these survivors, poisoned by radiation and riddled with tumors, struggle in a hostile environment short on resources like clean blood, fresh water and gasoline. So they come up with a religion to explain things and motivate them.

Character, character, character. The movie itself was inspired by a vision of characters – “five wives fleeing a warlord.” Miller knew specifically what Max’s psychological journey was about: Freedom versus obligation and honor. He even knew that the teeming masses of scabrous survivors had developed a religion which provided answers to existential questions and inspiration to believe in The Powers That Be.

Miller and fellow screenwriters Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris did not stop there, but worked with every primary and even secondary characters their due. The Nemesis Immortan Joe has a clear world view and an understandable goal, albeit wrongheaded. Every action Imperator Furiosa takes is grounded in where she is at that moment in her own psychological journey. Indeed one of the most fascinating metamorphoses occurs with Nux, who at first seems like a bit player, but plays a key supporting role in the narrative.

This is spectacle grounded in character… which is the best kind of spectacle because the events that transpired on screen carry emotional meaning.

“You create the architecture for the story once. The characters guide you one way or the other.”

This is just like one of my mantras: Begin with character. End with character. Discover the story in between.

This is a great screenwriting lesson. And there’s this.

We are in an era in which Hollywood is obsessed with spectacle movies. They are not going away. When you choose how to spend your consumer dollars, why not support movies like Mad Max: Fury Road which offers the best of both worlds: Action. Character.

For the rest of Thompson’s excellent feature on George Miller, go here.