Michael Arndt: “Beginnings: Setting a Story Into Motion” (Part 2)

April 8th, 2014 by

I have been a big fan of screenwriter Michael Arndt ever since I read his script Little Miss Sunshine, then saw the movie. And, of course, there’s Toy Story 3 which Arndt penned. My admiration goes beyond his writing, it extends to how Arndt thinks about writing as clearly he has done a great deal of reflection about the craft. Fortunately for us, he has gone public with at least some of those thoughts. I have featured his ruminations multiple times through years including here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. So I was interested to see this recent blog post by John August referencing this video:

In his post, John wrote this:

When I saw this video, I immediately wondered what it was from. It’s clearly professionally made, so why is it on some random guy’s YouTube account?

I emailed Michael Arndt, who wrote back that it was originally a bonus feature on the Blu-ray for Toy Story 3. He gave me his blessing to link to it.

I’m aware the model I set up here applies imperfectly to TS3 itself. (It applies much more cleanly [for example] to TOOTSIE, which I consider one of the best comedy first acts of all time.) The broader point is that the emotional fuel for your first act break is largely set up in your inciting incident — and that is something that does apply to TS3.

Disney and/or Pixar own the copyright on the video, so they could pull it down. But I hope they won’t. This kind of lesson celebrates what’s made their films so successful, and deserves wider exposure.

Knowing the whims of the Internet gods, I forwarded the link to the video to my stalwart development assistant Wendy Cohen and she was kind enough to produce a transcript, so we would at least have Arndt’s words down in print in case the video got yanked.

While I encourage you to watch the video – which is great – I want to dig deeper into the content of what Arndt says. So I will divide his observations into two parts. The first part I posted here yesterday. Here is a transcript of the second half of the video:

So, you start with your main character, you have what they’re defined by, you have a hidden flaw, you establish storm clouds on the horizon, and then BA-BOOM! Something comes in and totally blows apart your hero’s life and turns it upside down. So in the case of “Toy Story,” Buzz arrives and Woody gets displaced. And in “Finding Nemo,” the barracuda shows up and Marlin’s family gets killed except this one last little egg. In “The Incredibles” Mr. Incredible saves this guy, but then he gets sued and superheroes get banned. And in each of these cases, if you go back and look at what their grand passion was: Woody being Andy’s favorite toy, Marlin and his family, Mr. Incredible being a superhero, that’s the thing that gets taken away from them. It totally changes your character’s sense of what his or her future’s gonna be. But that bolt from the blue isn’t enough on its own. It’s not enough just to ruin your character’s life and take away their grand passion and change their whole sense of what the future’s gonna be. You gotta add insult to injury. You gotta add something that’s gonna make the world seem a little bit unfair. So not only does Woody get replaced, but he gets replaced by this total doofus, this imbecile who doesn’t even know that he’s a toy and they get in this whole argument about whether Buzz can fly or not. And Buzz jumps and bounces and flies around the room, and all the other toys go “Oh my God, he really can fly.” And the key thing here is that everyone is impressed for the wrong reason. In the case of “Finding Nemo,” you don’t need to really add insult to injury. We already understand that the world Marlin lives in is unfair. But on the other hand, with “The Incredibles,” the reason superheroes get banned is because Mr. Incredible was trying to do the right thing.

So now, your main character’s life has changed, her grand passion has been taken away, the world has revealed itself to be unfair, and she comes to a fork in the road, and she’s gonna have to make a choice on how to deal with her new reality. There’s a high road to take: a healthy, responsible choice, or a low road to take and make an unhealthy irresponsible choice. And remember, if your character chooses to do the right thing, you really don’t have a story.

For Woody, the healthy choice is to say, “Look, I had my day in the sun. I was Andy’s favorite toy for a long time, and I have to cede the spotlight at a certain point.” But what happens is that Woody makes the unhealthy choice. Woody tries to push Buzz behind the desk. And the key thing here is that we’re rooting for Woody to do the unhealthy, irresponsible thing because we feel his pain at getting replaced. So your character’s unhealthy choice, Woody’s unhealthy choice, creates a crisis, Buzz getting pushed out the window, which leads to all the other toys confronting Woody and saying, “You can’t stay in Andy’s room until you go find Buzz and bring him back here safe and sound.” And that’s your first act break. You see a similar thing in “Finding Nemo” when Marlin finds Nemo at the edge of the open ocean. Marlin’s unhealthy choice, his overprotectiveness, comes out of his grand passion, his love for his son. And his unhealthy choice provokes a crisis: Nemo saying “I hate you,” swimming out to the boat to prove his independence, and then getting caught by the diver. And now Marlin has a goal that’s gonna take him all the way through the rest of the story. With “The Incredibles,” the responsible choice is for Bob to do what his wife tells him to do, “save the world one policy at a time,” but that would be boring, and you’d have no story. So, the irresponsible choice for Bob is to lie to his wife Helen and go moonlighting with his buddy Frozone. And we’re totally rooting for Bob to make the irresponsible choice, because we saw how much he loved being a superhero, we saw how good he was at it, and we saw how unfairly it was taken away from him. And that unhealthy choice — sneaking around — leads to a crisis — Mirage tracking him down — which leads to Symdrome bringing Bob on retirement and you’re off into your second act.

So, your story is coming out of your character’s deepest desires and their darkest fears. The thing they love gets taken away from them and the world is revealed to be unfair. To put things right, they have to make the journey that is the rest of the film. And by the end of the journey, hopefully they’ll not only get back what they lost, but they’ll be forced to fix that little flaw they had when we first met them. So, that’s what I learned at Pixar, and I’m not saying that all stories have to start this way, but if you’re writing a script and you’re having a hard time getting started, I hope these ideas are helpful.

This is an interesting insight. And it occurred to me you could apply this take to The Wizard of Oz. What’s Dorothy’s grand passion? Daydreaming about a better life ‘somewhere over the rainbow’. An orphan, she doesn’t feel like her home in Kansas is her home. When Miss Gulch takes away Toto, but the little dog scampers back home, Dorothy could take the high road: Do what is legal and return Toto to Miss Gulch. But, of course, she can’t do that, we all sympathize with her as she takes the low road: running away from home.

Once in Oz, her experiences there are in effect her grand passion — daydreaming about a better place — on steroids with several obstacles and tests along the way. By story’s end, she has overcome her “little flaw” by realizing: “There’s no place like home.”

I’m sure there are plenty of other movies where this approach works. However there are many movies where the setup is considerably different. Here’s how Joseph Campbell describes the beginning of The Hero’s Journey from the wonderful interview series he did with Bill Moyers, “The Power of Myth”:

The Hero is found in the ordinary world…
In ancient myths it used to be the cottage or village…
In films, it is usually the suburbs or common urban environment.

The Hero is making do, but feels something missing, a sense of discomfort or tension.
The Hero needs to change, even if they are unaware of that need.

Oftentimes in a story’s beginning, the Protagonist is not doing what they love most. Indeed, Campbell asserts the whole point of the Hero’s Journey is about transformation and that change is generally about the Protagonist finding their Authentic Self. As Ovid says, “The seeds of change lie within.” The Protagonist may begin the story just “making do,” so they need to change, “even if they are unaware of that need.”

Consider this Protagonist:

Young Luke Skywalker, stuck on the edge of the galaxy, working on a moisture farm. At the beginning of the story, he is doing anything but engaged in his grand passion. But the seeds of change lie within: He has Jedi blood coursing through his veins. And by story’s end, he finds his grand passion as he becomes in effect a Jedi, aligning himself with The Force to destroy the Death Star.

The lesson Arndt gives is a fantastic one, not only in the substance of the content, but in demonstrating how a professional writer thinks about crafting a story, engaged in looking at structure and characters within that structure. But as Arndt himself observes, “I’m not saying that all stories have to start this way.” It’s a reminder that the best stories feel organic, they have a soul and a heart, a spontaneity and surprise to them.

As Arndt points out, we have certain things we need to accomplish in a script’s first 25 pages or so, it’s hard to break away from those requirements, and there are certain patterns and paradigms we see in this or that type of story. But as the three examples Arndt refers to from Pixar demonstrate, it’s not just about an approach to structure, it’s about creating characters who make sense, who have multiple layers to their psyches, who have feelings we can understand and identify with, and who we care about enough to join them on their adventure, whether they are participating in their grand passion at the beginning, disconnected from their True Self and due for a change, or anywhere in between.

Let’s carry this conversation to comments (click on Reply). What do you think of this approach to a story’s beginning?

Michael Arndt’s IMDB page here.

Follow John August’s blog here.

Follow John and Craig Mazin’s podcast Scriptnotes here.

Michael Arndt: “Beginnings: Setting a Story Into Motion” (Part 1)

April 7th, 2014 by

I have been a big fan of screenwriter Michael Arndt ever since I read his script Little Miss Sunshine, then saw the movie. And, of course, there’s Toy Story 3 which Arndt penned. My admiration goes beyond his writing, it extends to how Arndt thinks about writing as clearly he has done a great deal of reflection about the craft. Fortunately for us, he has gone public with at least some of those thoughts. I have featured his ruminations multiple times through years including here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. So I was interested to see this recent blog post by John August referencing this video:

In his post, John wrote this:

When I saw this video, I immediately wondered what it was from. It’s clearly professionally made, so why is it on some random guy’s YouTube account?

I emailed Michael Arndt, who wrote back that it was originally a bonus feature on the Blu-ray for Toy Story 3. He gave me his blessing to link to it.

I’m aware the model I set up here applies imperfectly to TS3 itself. (It applies much more cleanly [for example] to TOOTSIE, which I consider one of the best comedy first acts of all time.) The broader point is that the emotional fuel for your first act break is largely set up in your inciting incident — and that is something that does apply to TS3.

Disney and/or Pixar own the copyright on the video, so they could pull it down. But I hope they won’t. This kind of lesson celebrates what’s made their films so successful, and deserves wider exposure.

Knowing the whims of the Internet gods, I forwarded the link to the video to my stalwart development assistant Wendy Cohen and she was kind enough to produce a transcript, so we would at least have Arndt’s words down in print in case the video got yanked.

While I encourage you to watch the video – which is great – I want to dig deeper into the content of what Arndt says. So I will divide his observations into two parts, the first part today, second tomorrow, then follow with some reflections and open it up for discussion. Here is a transcript of the first half of the video:

The number one metaphor I have in my mind for writing a screenplay is that you’re trying to climb a mountain blindfolded. And the funny thing about that is, you think, “Okay, that’s hard because you’re climbing up a rock face, and you don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know where the top is, you can’t see what’s below you.” But actually, the hardest part about climbing a mountain blindfolded is just finding the mountain.

Hey everybody, I’m Michael Arndt, the screenwriter of “Toy Story 3.” Now, at Pixar, there’s a lot of people who contribute ideas to the story, but I’m the guy who actually has to sit down and type them into a computer. So when we started working on “Toy Story 3,” we had a hard time getting the story set up in the right way. And I think this is a common problem in screenwriting. A lot of times when a film doesn’t work, it seems like the problem is with the ending. But in fact, the seeds of failure have been planted at the beginning.

So, on “Toy Story 3” after several months of some floundering around and going in circles, I finally decided to go back and look at “Toy Story,” and “Finding Nemo,” and “The Incredibles” and figure out, “How do they set up their characters, and their worlds, and their stories?”

So, this is something I learned at Pixar: how to write a good beginning. Usually a script is about 100 pages long with three acts. And the first act is about 25 pages long, the second act is about 50 pages, and the third act is the last 25. Now, you start your first act by setting up your hero in his or her world. And by page 25, you’ve given your hero a goal and set them off on the journey that they’ll take in the second act. So let’s begin at the beginning, page one, introducing your main character. So, usually what you do when you’re introducing your main character is you show them doing the thing they love most. This is their grand passion, it’s their defining trait, it’s the center of their whole universe. So, in Woody’s case, he’s introduced playing with Andy. And that’s his favorite thing. That’s the thing that defines who he is as a person. With Marlin, Marlin’s a family man. He’s just moved into a new house with his wife, they have a whole new brood of little eggs and he couldn’t be happier. And then with “The Incredibles” you introduce Mr. Incredible being a superhero. So you start with your main character, you introduce the universe they live in, and you show your hero doing the thing they love to do most.

But then your character needs one more thing: she needs a flaw. Now, what’s key here is that your character’s flaw actually comes out of her grand passion. It’s a good thing that’s just been taken too far. So in Woody’s case, he takes pride in being Andy’s favorite toy. He loves being Andy’s favorite toy so much and he doesn’t want to share that with anyone. In the case of “Finding Nemo,” Marlin wants so badly to be a good parent that he’s a little bit insecure. With “The Incredibles,” Mr. Incredible’s a little bit like Woody in that he takes pride in his place of being Mr. Number One, and he doesn’t want to share that with anyone. Like you see when he bumps into Buddy. And you see it again when he bumps into Elastigirl on the roof. So you establish a character, you establish the world they live in, you establish the grand passion that they’re defined by, and you establish a hidden flaw that comes out of this grand passion. And then you want to establish storm clouds on the horizon, which is your character’s walking down the road of life, it’s a nice, bright sunny day, but off there on the horizon there’s some dark storm clouds gathering. So in the case of “Toy Story,” it’s Andy’s birthday party. And all the toys are fretting about being replaced and Woody has to say, “No one’s getting replaced.” And with “Finding Nemo,” you set up the fact that there’s an indoors inside the anemone where they’re safe, and there’s an outdoors, the rest of the ocean, which is implicitly dangerous. And then for “The Incredibles” Helen is saying to Bob, “Things are going to change after we get married,” and then you have Buddy showing up and being jealous of Mr. Incredible. So you’re establishing that there’s a resentment out there from normal people against superheroes and you’re establishing Helen saying to Bob, “Look, things are gonna change.”

Some observations:

* “A lot of times when a film doesn’t work, it seems like the problem is with the ending. But in fact, the seeds of failure have been planted at the beginning.” Reminds me of Billy Wilder’s quote:

“If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”

I doubt there’s a professional screenwriter alive who would argue with this point.

* For those supposed screenwriting gurus who decry three act structure, here is yet again another professional screenwriter who subscribes to the theory. If it was good enough for Aristotle and Joseph Campbell (Separation / Initiation / Return), it’s good enough for most of us.

* Speaking of Campbell, he would refer to this first part of a story as setting up the Old World or Ordinary World. As Arndt says, “you start your first act by setting up your hero in his or her world.” This is critical to establish a baseline of understanding where the Protagonist begins their adventure. You cannot measure their metamorphosis if you don’t know where they start out.

* Arndt adds this: “And by page 25, you’ve given your hero a goal and set them off on the journey that they’ll take in the second act.” The Protagonist’s goal not only creates an end point for the plot, it also — per Arndt’s language — generates External Stakes. The goal is important to the Protagonist. Not achieving that goal would be a significant blow or sense of loss. Hence, stakes. Hence, drama.

The most interesting idea here is this: “So, usually what you do when you’re introducing your main character is you show them doing the thing they love most. This is their grand passion, it’s their defining trait, it’s the center of their whole universe.” If you think this pertains only to Pixar movies, how about this:

Meet Charles Foster Kane as a youth, having a wonderful time in the snowy climes of Colorado. Couldn’t be happier. Then yanked away to live in New York City. Never happy again. Indeed, always – at least subconsciously – attempting to make up for the loss of his idyllic childhood home which is, of course, where Rosebud comes in.

While we’re on the subject of beginnings, let me toss out this idea: The story’s ending is implied in its beginning. I call it the narrative imperative. When you reach the ending of a story and it feels emotionally satisfying, that means it has been set up well in the beginning.

We shall continue with Arndt’s musings tomorrow in Part 2, but let’s carry over this conversation to comments (click on Reply). What do you think of this idea: As part of a Protagonist’s setup, show them reveling in their “grand passion”.

Michael Arndt’s IMDB page here.

Follow John August’s blog here.

Follow John and Craig Mazin’s podcast Scriptnotes here.

That famous Pixar lunch of 1994

January 23rd, 2014 by

I suspect we all know how hard it is to come up with a single great story idea. Imagine one meeting in which you come up with four great ideas, each of which becomes a hit movie. That happened with Pixar. More here:

Four of Pixar’s leading directors- John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Joe Ranft (who unfortunately died in a car accident in 2005) had a lunch meeting one day in 1994, when the production of their first movie Toy Story was almost finished. Four of Pixar’s movies were born from that one meeting.

Their next idea for a movie was Bugs Life. Bugs, like toys, would be easier to animate and thus an easier option. They were trying to build on the Aesop fable, the ant and the Grasshopper. Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft suggested that the grasshoppers, unlike the fable, would just take the food from the ants.

Toy Story was based on the belief that kids thought toys came to life when nobody was looking. Pete Docter, who says that after the movies release, everyone started believing that the toys really did come to life when they weren’t looking. For one of their next films, Docter suggested that they come up with another popular belief, that monsters were hiding in the children’s closet ready to come out and scare them.

Andrew Stanton got inspired to come with Finding Nemo, from many of his experiences. First, he remembers as a child watching the fish in the tank at the dentists office, and wondering if the fish wanted to go home. In one of his trips to Marine World (Six Flags Discovery Kingdom), he saw a shark which he thought could be done so well in animation (like Bugs Life and Toy Story, at that time animation was restricted and advance materials could not be made). He also got the idea of an over-protective father when he was doing the something with his son at the park one day. He got the idea of clown fish, by seeing a photo of a clown fish and decided it was perfect for his purpose.

At the lunch meeting, after discussing these movies they finally discussed the last movie Walle-E. Andrew Stanton asked “What if mankind “What if mankind had to leave Earth and somebody forgot to turn off the last robot?”

I have written about the power of ‘what if’ here, in my view the two most important words in the creative process, especially generating story concepts. And we see it here at work at this famous Pixar lunch, even literally with Stanton’s question that led to Wall-e.

You can download the production notes for Wall-e here. In the notes, there’s this from Stanton about that lunch:

“One of the things I remember coming out of it was the idea of a little robot left on Earth,” says Stanton. “We had no story. It was sort of this Robinson Crusoe kind of little character—like, what if mankind had to leave Earth and somebody forgot to turn the last robot off, and he didn’t know he could stop doing what he’s doing?”

Note: It’s more than just a what if. It’s a character. The “last robot,” a “Robinson Crusoe kind of little character.”

I’m currently teaching Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling. I love that course for any number of reasons, but one in particular: The storytellers at Pixar have a strong pull toward characters. That informs most everything they do in developing and shaping their stories.

It’s what I believe – and teach – as well.

Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling

December 10th, 2013 by

I am excited to reprise this 1-week Screenwriting Master Class course as it has given me the opportunity to dig into the films and creative culture of Pixar. As anyone who has visited this blog for even a few months knows, I am fascinated by Pixar. 14 movies, 14 #1 hits. Unprecedented. But it’s more than just their success with critics and at the box office, it’s about their absolute commitment to the craft of storytelling.

So I have been going through years of articles, research and notes, screened all their movies one more time, and discerned six key dynamics present in almost all of their films that contribute directly to the success of their stories.

And here’s the thing: Whether you write for children, teens, or adults, screenplays, plays, or novels, you can use these same dynamics in developing and crafting your own stories.

The 1-week online course is called Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling and it begins January 20, 2014. It’s one of my most popular classes and for good reason.

I honestly believe film historians will look back at the period between 1995 and today as the “Pixar decades” because no filmmakers have ever done what they will have accomplished in their  films during that period of time.

This course is a great way to learn from the master storytellers at Pixar.

Here are some nice comments about this class from folks who’ve taken the class:

“I was lucky enough to be able to take Scott’s Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling class. It was my first class and a wonderful experience. I learned a ton and now have some important utensils that will help make all my stories better. Scott’s a great teacher and it was a pleasure learning from him!” — Valencia Stokes

“This course is awesome. I refer to these notes and lessons all the time.” — Traci Nell Peterson

“A course on Pixar movies? Apart from legitimately letting out my inner child and renting Up ‘for research purposes, I learnt about the ethos of the Pixar Brain Trust and the essential elements contained in all of their movies. Scott took us on an all-inclusive week long journey into why Pixar are so successful and how to practically apply this to your own script.” — Camilla Castree

“I recommend this course wholeheartedly. Plus you get to watch Pixar films as homework.” — TheQuietAct

“Scott Myers is a brilliant teacher and unites his knowledge and experience, insight and depth of thought in his lectures as well as he is providing help and support to his students. I highly recommend the class.” — Eva Brandstätter

A few words about the online format: I’ve been teaching online since 2002, worked with over 1000 writers in that context, and honestly believe it is superior to the onsite class environment in many ways:

* You can do virtually everything on your own time: Download lectures, read forum conversations, add your own comments, upload writing exercises and assignments. In your pajamas. In bed. Drinking coffee. However you want to access online course content, you can do it.

* As opposed to listening to a teacher present lectures verbally, you get to download lectures and read them. Again at your leisure, but even more importantly, instead of feverishly trying to jot down notes from a verbal presentation, here you get everything laid out for you. I take great pride in my lectures, as they not only provide great content, they also have a narrative flow to them.Yes, they tell a little story.

* Feedback and conversations online tend to be much more thoughtful and therefore beneficial than onsite settings. Why? Because instead of off-the-cuff, random comments, participants online tend to spend more time and reflection in composing posts for online.

Finally I’m constantly amazed at how much of a community emerges in online class environments. Writers from all around the world and somehow we bind together into remarkably vibrant learning communities, time and time again.

So if you’ve never tried an online screenwriting class, come on in! The virtual water’s fine!

Give yourself a Christmas present! For more information on Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling, go here. And if you really want to treat yourself well, consider The Craft Package.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Story, Analyzed as a PDF eBook

December 4th, 2013 by

Anyone who has frequented this blog for any length of time probably knows I am a Pixar freak.

It’s why I was so excited to be able to interview Mary Coleman, head of Pixar’s story department… and even more excited to meet Mary in-person at this year’s Austin Film Festival.

It’s why I created an entire 1-week online class called Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling which I will be teaching again starting January 20, 2014.

So about 18 months ago when Emma Coats — “freelance director of films, boarder of story” — posted 22 #storybasics I’ve picked up in my time at Pixar, I ran this series analyzing each pointer:

“22 story basics from Pixar”: #1-4

“22 story basics from Pixar”: #5-9

“22 story basics from Pixar”: #10-13

“22 story basics from Pixar”: #14-18

“22 story basics from Pixar”: #19-22

But this particular story doesn’t end here witness an email I received last week from Stephan Vladimir Bugaj:

Hi Scott,

I’m a filmmaker who has been at Pixar for 12 years, including codeveloping stories with one of our directors for the last 3 years, and then cowriting a feature screenplay for one of those stories full-time for the last year. I’m also an avid GITS reader.

I love sharing what I’ve learned at Pixar with other filmmakers, and to that end I have a free eBook available which goes in-depth into the now famous “Pixar’s 22 Rules of Story”.

I think it would be of interest to other GITS readers.

It’s totally free for anyone who wants to read it, no strings attached.

Please feel free to share the link, or embed the PDF download directly, in a GITS article online.

To which I responded, “Hell, yeah!” Here an excerpt from Stephan’s ebook:

Rule 16.

What are the stakes? Give us reason to root
for the character. What happens if they
don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

This particular rule is so essential it probably should be
rule #1, because it is the most character-centric statement
of the idea: “what is the story about?”

What the character will lose if she is unable to overcome
all obstacles, internal and external, is the main tension
line of the entire story. It’s this impending possibility
of loss that will make an audience sympathetic to a
character, even one who is a bit of a bastard. The stakes
are the core of the story, the palpable outcome of failing
to resolve the central question.

Stacking the odds against the protagonist makes the
audience not only feel more empathy towards her, but it
also makes a victory feel earned (or, in the case of a
tragedy, a failure feel justified).

A common question producers and other professionals ask
about stories is “why this particular character in this
particular situation at this particular time?” What they’re
really asking is “what are the stakes?”

The protagonist’s flaw, her wrong choices, the actions of
any external opponents, and all the external circumstances
should be obstacles that block or divert the protagonist
from resolving the central question in their favor.
Internal obstacles — character flaws and the bad decisions
they lead to — are also crucial.

Yet the protagonist, however flawed, still needs to be
deeply invested in her own success so that the audience
cares not only about that victory itself, but also about
her being able to change in the ways necessary to win.
So the more the protagonist has to lose, the more the
audience will get invested in her fate. And the greater the
obstacles to success, the more likely she is to lose.

Each step the character takes away from success, and
towards the doom scenario, raises the stakes and makes the
audience more excited about getting to the resolution. So
does broadening the risk, a common, melodramatic example of
which is the protagonist discovering that not only will she
die if she fails, but “life as we know it will cease”.

Active, intelligent opponents are usually the most
compelling obstacles, and they work best when they have
opposing stakes. Opponents need to be equally as invested
in their own success as the protagonist is, and therefore
determined to bring about the protagonist’s failure in
order to achieve their own goals.

Most importantly, the opponents need to have the advantage.
If the advantage is too great, the protagonist needs to
acquire allies in order to make a successful outcome (if
there is one) believable, but it’s far worse for the
dramatic tension if the opponents are too weak to pose a
credible threat to the protagonist.

This is a particular problem with “hack n’ slash” action
films where sheer numbers of dumb, aimless, weak opponents
tries (usually quite unsuccessfully) to make-up for an
intelligent, driven, strong central opponent.

Quantity alone doesn’t make the odds greater, opposing
strength does. If a single soldier in a Sherman Tank goes
up against a thousand Roman legionnaires, the audience
won’t be terribly concerned about that tanker’s fate
despite the number of opponents.

But if a single Roman legionnaire goes up against a squad
of Sherman Tanks, the odds are very much stacked against
the Roman and an audience will be intrigued to find out if
he’ll somehow prevail (or, given most audience members’
exposure to story trends in our culture, how he’ll
prevail).

It’s also important that how the character overcomes these
seemingly insurmountable odds be motivated by that
character’s personality, take advantage of her strengths,
and be plausible — not necessarily realistic, but
believable and consistent with the story world you’ve
created.

Making the character’s victory (or defeat) too sudden,
spurious, or simple will undermine all the tension you’ve
worked to create up to that point, wiping it all away in
one bad choice. The victory moment must be a struggle, and
a narrow victory is generally more sympathetic than an
overwhelming one (of course there are exceptions).

Keeping that tension going until the very moment of the
protagonist’s victory will enable the audience to stay on
board with the character until her plight is ultimately
resolved. The moment things start going overwhelmingly in
favor of the protagonist there’s only a moment left before
the audience will just sigh and say “okay, I get it, she’s
going to prevail”.

And if the protagonist will be defeated in the end, the
audience will feel the tragedy more acutely if there was a
moment of true hope she might prevail rather than just
mowing her down with overwhelming opposing forces.

Ultimately the stakes are the heart of both story and
character, and without clearly stating what they are the
audience will become lost and disaffected.

Even worse, if you don’t know what the stakes are you will
end up creating a story that is muddled and just kills time
until its conclusion.

This is why a lot of writing advice says to start at the
end: all the conflict in the story flows backwards from the
resolution of the stakes question. Knowing the conclusion
of the story and how the protagonist and opponent are each
changed in the end will enable you to make sure that every
moment in the story is a building block towards resolving
the stakes, not “just business”.

I can’t begin to express how completely resonant these observations are with just about everything I teach, even down to the single most important question I believe you can ask about your story:

Why does this story have to happen to this character at this time?

Stakes must be tied to the psychological dimension of the story and almost always specifically to the Protagonist’s journey.

Which is to say…

Download the shit out of Stephan’s ebook here!

Daily Dialogue theme for next week: Pixar moments

August 10th, 2013 by

As we wrap up a week’s worth of talking to one’s self posts [thanks for that, camdeaver], it’s time for next week’s theme: Pixar moments suggested by Mark Walker.

So many great Pixar moments. A few lists for possible suggestions: here, here, and here. One key to Pixar’s success is their embrace of visual storytelling witness this famous sequence that features no dialogue.

For purposes of the Daily Dialogue series, however, let’s look for scenes which match both dialogue and visuals to create something special.

For next week the usual drill:

* Copy/paste dialogue from IMDB Quotes or some other transcript source.

* Copy/paste the URL of an accompanying video from YouTube or some other video source.

I’d also ask you to think about why the dialogue is notable. Is there anything about the dialogue which provides some takeaway re screenwriting?

Here is the lineup for upcoming Daily Dialogue themes:

August 19-August 25: Overcome with emotion [Sabina]

August 26-September 1: Less is more [hobbs001]

September 2-September 8: Seduction [Despina]

September 9-September 15: Reunion [Laura Deerfield]

See you in comments for your suggestions featuring this week’s theme: Pixar moments.

“Advanced Writing Tools: The Pixar Way”

June 12th, 2013 by

Tom Benedek with some thoughts on the value of having the right tools:

Having the right tool for the job is crucial. I just finished a rewrite and polish on an adaptation that I had been working on for a long time. In the beat sheet/story outline I mapped out long ago, things were very straight-forward. There was a chronology that was logical but it lacked some emotional force, something to tie it together. Eventually, it dawned on me that I needed to add some elements. Not just plot or character but ways into the story. I finally added a very unusual narrator plus some time shifts. I took liberties carefully. However, I had precedents in other scripts I admired. I also was aware of how these tools functioned reasonably thoroughly. Once I started in on the changes in the draft, I had these tools and their intended uses right in front of me — ready to use.

Simultaneously, I have recently been doing some small home improvement projects and to make my life easier, I have been really careful to have everything on hand for each given task before I start. (My proudest achievement: switching out the internal hard drive on my iMac. Yes, iMacs can be opened. You need suction cups to get the glass off. It is actually held on by magnets. I didn’t know that for $25 you could buy a set of suction cups strong enough to lift a small refrigerator! On and on. Don’t get me started about the nuances of switching out an iMac hard drive. (If you are curious, go to ifixit.com and watch the video. I now have 1TB of space on my iMac and I am writing this post on it — Happy Ending — I didn’t have to carry the computer into an Apple place for a 5 day repair job and it works fine. The job itself took 60 minutes. BUT I read the instructions 5 times, acquired all the right tools — computer screwdrivers, spudger and suction cups:)

The point is — knowing which tool to use for a given job is crucial. And the more tools we have available to us, the better. As we write pages, though sometimes we may just write freely and unconsciously, other times it may serve the project best to have a specific and less common storytelling tool at the ready — for a specific purpose.

The opening pages of Up! are a great example. In theory, all the back story which is presented early may seem to be a massive rule breaker. But the way they did it works fantastically well, I think, because they use an array of craft tools through those sequences. We can all stretch the limits and improve our scripts by using the correct tools for the right moments in a script. To enhance audience/reader experience, how we choose to tell the story may make all the difference. Expanding your personal inventory of writing tools is essential and part of the fun of being a writer, I think.

Understanding more tools helps us to tell stories better – make our scripts better. In going back through some Pixar scripts to identify specific uses of an array of writing tools, I am blown away, once again, by the craftsmanship inherent in the best of Pixar. We all know it is there. We feel it as we watch the films and read the script. I will be teaching a one-week class — Advanced Writing Tools the Pixar Way — starting on Monday at Screenwritingmasterclass.com. Using Pixar scripts as role models is, of course,  a great way to expand screenwriting craft knowledge. So do consider joining me in this fun and exciting class.

For more information on Tom’s new class, go here.

“Advanced Writing Tools the Pixar Way”

June 8th, 2013 by

A message from Tom Benedek:

Dear Fellow Writers,

We all want to get to the next level with our writing.

I believe by breaking down how the best scripts work, we can learn and improve — make our scripts better.

That is why I am now taking a look at some of the smaller things which make Pixar movies work so well.

My upcoming class, Advanced Writing Tools the Pixar Way, is designed to be a fun, inspiring and painless way to nail down some new screenwriting tools to incorporate into your own(and my own) screenwriting.

These little things matter greatly. When we read scripts and watch films, the experience is enhanced when everything is done right. Plot, character, story? Of course.

But the details of structure are made up of so many things.

Attention to detail, to the less obvious craft elements can make the difference in a script. In screenwriting, there are some lesser known craft elements which are used over and over again in the best scripts.

Enter Pixar. The master creators there enhance their storytelling in as many ways as possible and we will be considering how their scripts operate from some very interesting new angles.

Here are the details on this new course:

CRAFT: ADVANCED WRITING TOOLS THE PIXAR WAY

Move to the next level on your pages by enhancing your use of subtext, theme, the fourth wall, dramatic irony, preparation, aftermath, advertisements for the future and all those other little things that make scripts better, very good, the best.

Dates: June 17-24, 2013
Instructor: Tom Benedek

7-day online screenwriting course

To enhance and elevate character development and story structure, there are craft tools available which can be easily mastered and utilized.  Looking at a few Pixar scripts as case studies, we will be exploring these “little things” which make these movies work so well

* Learn Ways to Maximize the Strengths of Your Scripts by Looking at Pixar Storytelling
* Acquire Effective Strategies for Adding Depth to Your Storytelling on the Page
* Access Clear, Beautifully Executed Examples in Pixar Movies
* Reinforce Your Base Knowledge of Script Structure
* Evolve Your Screenwriting Craft
* Workshop Craft Elements from Your Own Script
* Study the Special Craft Elements which Elevate Screenplay Quality
* In-Depth Breakdown of the Fundamentals of Pixar Script Craft Tools
* Learn Strategies to Improve Reader/Audience Experience in Your Script

The 7 day class includes:

* Five Lectures by Tom Benedek
* 2 Workbook Assignments with Instructor and Class Feedback
* Daily Forum Q&As
* A 90-minute Live Teleconference with Instructor and Class Members

Starts June 17
Enroll now!

Please do consider taking this class. It promises to be a fun and valuable learning experience.

Best,

Tom Benedek

And here are some thoughts from writers who have worked with Tom and me at Screenwriting Master Class:

Many thanks Tom, I got an enormous amount out of this 10 day dash. The show runner/and interviews (and pilot) were priceless, I was able to apply your Lecture steps to my concept and bang out an outline. Better yet, it really helped me break through on the rewrite I’m doing on an original spec (for film). I’ve always been able to break down other people’s drafts and have those tools handy to “ask the questions” that aren’t yet being answered– but I ALWAYS run into a wall when It’s my original material. Suddenly, with your “Family of Characters,” I can see beyond that wall– have been writing non-stop since. Can’t say a big enough thank you!

– Deborah Goodwin

I’d recommend Screenwriting Master Class to anyone who’s serious about writing screenplays. The Craft classes are really effective in taking those same concepts and putting them in practice.Tom and Scott are erudite, articulate guys who know movies and the movie business inside and out. The other students are a mix of beginners, working Hollywood writers, and folks in between, and Scott and Tom are encouraging and helpful to writers at all levels. I’ve learned as much from the discussions as from the ‘official’ course material.

– Matt Cowley

It was obvious to me from the first class that Tom’s screenwriting acumen stems not from theory but from practicing the craft as a working screenwriter. His knowledge of screenwriting and his hands-on experience translates into clear, easy to grasp teachings that benefit beginner as well as more advanced screenwriters.

– Ourdia Hodge

For more information on Advanced Writing Tools the Pixar Way, go here.

Stories do not need a Nemesis character

January 31st, 2013 by

I’ve addressed this subject before, but since it came up yesterday in the Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling class, I thought it would be a good opportunity to review these ideas again. One of the class participants Patrick O’Toole posted this in the forums:

It’s amazing that both Nemo and Toy Story have obstacles but not traditional antagonist.

My response:

You can go here to read a transcript I did of Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk when he notes this about the earliest days of the company:

In the early days of Pixar, before we truly understood the invisible workings of story, we were simply a group of guys going on our gut, going on our instincts. And it’s interesting to see how that led us places that are actually pretty good. You have to understand that at this time in 1993, what was considered a successful animated picture Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King. So when we pitched Toy Story to Tom Hanks for the first time, he walked in and said, “You don’t want me to sing, do you?” And I thought that epitomized perfectly what everybody thought animation had to be at the time.

But we really wanted to prove you could tell completely different stories in animation. We didn’t have any influence then, so we had a little secret list of rules that we kept to ourselves. They were:

  • No songs
  • No “I want” moment
  • No happy village
  • No love story
  • No villain

The irony is in the first year, our story was not working at all and Disney was panicking. So they privately got advice from a famous lyricist – who I won’t name – and he faxed them some suggestions. And we got a hold of that fax. And the fax said:

  • There should be songs
  • There should be an “I want” song
  • There should be a happy village song
  • There should be a love story
  • And there should be a villain

And thank goodness we were just too young, rebellious and contrairian at the time. That just gave us more determination to prove you could build a better story. A year after that, we did conquer it. And it just goes to prove storytelling has guidelines, not hard, fast rules.

No villain. And that can work. But not if there isn’t opposition!

One of the eight screenwriting principles I teach in my Core classes is this:

Character = Function.

So when we deal with a Nemesis / Antagonist character, what we really get when we boil them down to their core essence is opposition. They oppose the Protagonist.

But we can get away without having an actual Nemesis if we create a story that provides opposition for the Protagonist.

You mention Toy Story. That’s a classic example where the nemesis function gets passed around from character to character, situation to situation. I refer to that as masks, whereby a character may don a nemesis mask [or protagonist, attractor, mentor, trickster] from scene to scene. If Woody is the P, then at first Buzz is the N. Then Woody’s own jealousy of Buzz acts as the N which creates the circumstances by which Buzz gets knocked outside. Once Woody heads out to get Buzz, the circumstances they deal with including Pizza Planet provides opposition. Of course, Sid the ‘evil’ kid next door dons a nemesis mask. When Woody is trying to get on the moving van at the end, the other toys wear a nemesis mask.

And so yes, stories do not need a traditional Nemesis, however they do require opposition to the Protagonist.

This is yet another way in which using archetypes as part of the story-crafting process can open up the possibility of non-formulaic writing. Instead of a traditional villain, why not explore stories where the nemesis function gets passed along like a baton from character to character, situation to situation?

By the way, this Pixar class has almost 40 participants in it. A terrific group from all around the world. Online environments like that are an amazing way to dig into the theory and craft of screenwriting, and have a heck of a lot of fun in the process.

Warner Bros. gets in touch with its inner Pixar?

January 9th, 2013 by

Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing Mary Coleman, head of the story department at Pixar. Here is a quote about Hollywood’s fascination with the company:

It’s funny because I get calls from producers down in Hollywood asking for the secret recipe. And I always say it’s really hard work, and committing to slog through the bad times. Trusting that if we stick with it and support each other we’ll get there. There’s no short cut for getting it right. We’re willing to keep going back to the drawing board, put it up, look at it, throw it all away and start over. We’re willing to do that over and over and over again.

And here is Mary talking about why Pixar hired someone like her who had a background working with playwrights at San Francisco’s Magic Theater:

Because the Magic workshopped multiple drafts before going into production.  We stuck with the playwright through the process, knowing that there would be rocky drafts but if you hang in there, you can get to something you’re all proud to be part of.  Pixar commits to artists the same way, knowing that there are going to be drafts and screenings that fall flat, but instead of panicking and firing people we commit to the long-term development process.

Workshop is really the right word.  In the theater we workshopped a new play for months.  At Pixar it’s years, literally 5 years, to get the stories right.

Put those snippets together with the fact that Pixar has produced 13 movies, each of which has opened at #1 in box office returns, and that helps to explain this:

Warner Bros is making a serious stab to enter the blockbuster animation field, forming an animation think tank to make what it calls high-end animated motion pictures.

The group consists of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who directed Crazy, Stupid, Love for the studio, and Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who directed the animated hit Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and are directing The Lego Movie for the studio. Nicholas Stoller (The Muppets) and Jared Stern (Mr. Popper’s Penguins) also are part of the creative consortium.

Think tank. That sounds an awful lot like Pixar’s vaunted Brain Trust. Again from Mary Coleman:

But the most important work of that first year is finding the core of the story, what it is the director wants to communicate to the world.

That starts with very rough outlines. You pitch those to the Brain Trust—a group of the other Pixar directors. One of the most unique aspects of our studio is that you get feedback from their peers. And peers who are very committed to your success, as much as you are to theirs.  You get this incredible input before there’s even a first draft. You can call on individuals or the whole Trust at any point to get the feedback you need.

Toy Story was released in 1995. So it’s only taken 18 years for a Hollywood studio to — apparently — come up with an approach that emulates Pixar, the most successful movie production entity ever.

More power to them, especially if the Warner Bros. ‘think tank’ is as serious about story as the folks at Pixar.

What do you think? Can Warner Bros. succeed producing one animated movie a year by following a path that seems inspired by Pixar?

For more on yesterday’s Warner Bros. announcement, read the THR article here.

Don’t forget: I’ll be teaching my 1-week online class Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling starting Monday, January 28. You can enroll here.