The Screenwriter's Column
SCREENWRITING Q & A WITH LINDA
Email Linda at Linda@plotsinc.com
with your questions. Please put "Q & A" in your subject line. If Linda can't answer your question,
she'll find someone who will.
Q 26: How do you indentify the Act 1
climax? And what separates it from the inciting incident? Is it an event or a beat, or
Q 25: What is the "driving force"
in a story and how do you create a single driving force?
Q 24: What is the relationship between the
driving force and premise?
Q 23: How do you create a story
Q 22: Good character development lends
itself to providing some facts about the character's background and upbringing, but how "in-depth"
does a writer need to go to provide enough detail?
Q 21: I'm a screenwriter with two films
produced (2 major stars, respectively). I've now taken on the task of an ensemble film. Major headache
as far as structure goes. I read your article on ensemble films but it didn't seem to address my
dilemma on structure. I have six protagonists in basically one location. It's a dark comedy that deals
with a focus group. I'd appreciate any help that you could give me.?
Q 20: In regards to your article on the
'ensemble film', how would you classify The Red Violin? And, forgive me if this sounds like a
slight, but of all the films mentioned by you, how could you overlook possibly the greatest ensemble
film of recent memory:Pulp Fiction?
Q 19: How does the writer who's used to
taking the protagonist's action as a measure of his narrative's progress incorporate the emotional
ideas you present and prepare his beats when using a step outline? How are the two concepts
Q 18: Is it possible to over-develop a
character? In the narrative parts of my script I tried to develop my character as much as I could,
but it turns out to be a lot of writing.
Q 17: Some screenwriting teachers argue
that 3 act structure is old hat, and that films now have evolved into a 4 act structure. What do you
think about this?
Q 16: How do you come up with
Q 15: I'm a screenwriter who teaches
screenwriting, and it's been hammered into me not to use "angles" or call any shots, so I try to teach
my students how to take care of point of view through scene headings and action description. Using the
script in the back of your book, Writing Short Films, I can show them how it would be done by
substituting AT THE BAR for ANGLE, etc., but I was curious about your thoughts on this for beginning
writers. Should I just make them aware that some prefer this way and some allow that, or do I need to
be more prescriptive (for their sake if they decide to approach the industry)?
Q 14: What is a beat sheet?
Q 13: I start a new scene when characters
move from one location to another even though the same conversation, subject, etc continues. I have
more than 80 scenes...all the time. Does this interfere with the reader's following the
Q 12: When your story focuses on
storytellers/storytelling (i.e., Big Fish) how do you keep that from calling attention to
itself so the audience isn't distanced?
Q 11: I want to ask you about story
management. How should I manage the different story lines and characters without neglecting one or
Q 10: What is a controlling idea?
Q 9: I have a story that takes place over
many years, and people say the script seems unfocused. How do I focus it?
Q 8: Does my main character have to
Q 7: Do writing programs help, and could
you recommend any good programs -- or is there one major program that everyone uses?
Q 6: What's the best way to keep up with
ever changing script format trends?
Q 5: I've never submitted a script to
anything! What is the accepted way of binding? My sister is an author and with manuscripts you never
bind it in any way. We don't want to appear too dumb!
Q 4: We have very brief "memory flashes" in
our script, kind of akin to those in Run Lola Run, in that they are really quick. How do we
Q 3: I'm using a narrator and having
trouble figuring out how a strategy to make it work within a satiric piece so that it functions as a
unifying melodic theme and isn't just a staccato voice.
Q 2: Is it true that structure for a short
film is the same as for a feature, just shrunken down?
Q 1: What makes a screenplay great?
Q 1: What makes a screenplay great?
I once heard Robert Altman say a great film is one that gets better and better
each time you see it, and I think that's true. Great screenplays are like that; they hold your
interest upon re-reading them. It doesn't matter if it's an action story or a character piece; they
build tension and hold you rapt.
Great screenplays make you want to turn the page and keep reading - there's
something compelling about them. We get involved in the characters - they make us care about them.
Think about movies like Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and even
Casablanca. These main characters all push us away with words and actions at the start of the
films, yet they win us over. Why? Because they all do something that puts someone else's welfare
above their own. Bobby in Five Easy Pieces isn't a very appealing guy until he does the one
thing he really doesn't want to do - take Rayette with him when he goes to see his ailing father. The
consequences of this action plague him throughout the film, but our empathy for him hinges on it. In
Cuckoo's Nest, McMurphy isn't the kind of guy you'd want to sit around and have a beer with,
yet we're rooting for him all the way. It's not just that he struggles against a worthy antagonist in
Nurse Ratched, it's that he continually ignores his own well being to act on behalf of the other
inmates. In Casablanca, Rick tells us from the beginning he sticks his neck out for no one.
But in the first act we see him continually act in ways that clearly tell us he sees the needs of
others. I guess you could say that great scripts create great roles for actors and actresses.
I think great scripts have something to say about the world. They show us
something about love, self-worth, identity, society, hate, revenge, family dysfunction. If what the
script says is honest and real, it will have a universal quality about it, and people will relate to
Another thing we see in great scripts is that they create a world that feels
authentic. There's depth to it because they take us behind the scenes into a world we may only know
on the surface.
Great scripts arouse our emotions. I remember reading a draft of Saving
Private Ryan that went out to directors. In it, only the first 10 pages were devoted to D-Day,
and there was no present day frame story. By page 15, I was weeping. And everyone who read that
script felt the same power. It was a movie that had to be made (even though they never solved the
script problems in the middle). If you can make us cry, you're off to a good start, but if you can
make us laugh, too, you're script will fare even better. (back to top)
Q 2: Is it true that structure for a short film is the same
as for a feature, just shrunken down?
The principles for constructing a short film story are similar to feature films,
but there are important differences, too. Stories develop best with set-up, development and climax,
whether you call these act one, two and three or just beginning, middle and end. But the time you
allot to these sections of the story will be much different in a short.
In a feature film, you often can spend a significant amount of time establishing
the setting and characters before getting to the main conflict. In great features, conflict starts
before the end of the first act, and develops to fully announce itself at the act one climax where we
now understand what this story is really going to be about.
Short films can't spend a lot of time at the beginning setting up the conflict.
They need to jump into the story quickly. If you are writing a 30-minute screenplay, your story needs
to declare itself at the latest by five minutes (five pages) into your film. If you're writing a
ten-minute script, by the bottom of page one (or sooner), two at the latest, your conflict needs to
announce itself so the story can take off. You have to understand that your audience isn't going to
sit around for 15 minutes of set up so that the story can play out in another 15 minutes.
Another difference worth considering is that you really aren't going to have time
to develop both a second act climax and a third act climax in most short films. Once you declare your
conflict (early in the script), you're now into your middle - the development of the conflict - and
that this will build to your main climax and resolution of the story.
What we do see is that the midpoint often takes on a key role in great shorts.
The longer the short, the more important the midpoint is. It's not that it functions as a second act
climax. It is structurally a key point to focus the action toward or on in the first half of the
story, and in the second half to use it as the springboard toward the main climax.
A midpoint is a perfect place to play a dramatic reversal or revelation, something
that will change and push the direction of the action onward. In the first half of Richard Price and
Martin Scorsesešs Life Lessons, from the film New York Stories, we seem sure that the girl
(Rosanna Arquette) is not going to stay. About halfway through the film after a fight with her boss
and famous painter (Nick Nolte), we're sure she's out of there. This may even be where the film ends.
She establishes shešs going home with her mother in one scene, and then in the next goes to tell
Lionel. But when she can't get his attention away from his painting and she watches him, we see her
anger melt away as she becomes inspired again. The next scene shows us she's still there, and the
story heats up from this point.
In Peter Capaldi's Academy Award winning Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful
Life, Kafka has found the solution to his writer's block when he's overcome by his own horror at
his actions at the midpoint. The crazy knife and scissor sharpener, who's been hunting for his lost
insect (that Kafka may have killed and taken his inspiration from for Metamorphosis), now appears to
threaten Kafka's life and take the story in a new direction that builds to the climax. (back to top)
Q 3: I'm using a narrator and having trouble figuring out
how a strategy to make it work within a satiric piece so that it functions as a unifying melodic theme
and isn't just a staccato voice.
I've been thinking about what that you've written here, and I don't exactly know
how to answer it. The trouble with narration is that most people over-do it and tell too much.
Good narration has its own voice, is used to heighten tension or make us laugh,
depending on the story. It can hint at future events, suggest possible outcomes, frame questions you
want in the mind of the viewer. But I'm not sure how you do this, except to use as you first think and
feel best in your screenplay and then read it over to see if it's working.
What you want to avoid is telling us events that we're seeing or have already
seen, unless you are adding something more to them we couldn't know by what you're showing. Don't be
cute with it, and don't be on the nose with it. Give it a distinctive voice, and be true to that.
Think of it as a personality. Is it ominiscent or does it have limits to its knowledge. Make it a
character. Always ask what it's adding as opposed to what it's telling. Telling is when it's used to
tell us the story, as opposed to adding to the story we're seeing. (back to
Q 4: We have very brief "memory flashes" in our script,
kind of akin to those in Run Lola Run, in that they are really quick. How do we format
What I would do is use a scene heading to tell me where the memory flash is taking
place (after all we'll have to know where to shoot, right?), whether it's day or night and then in
parentheses write the words Memory Flash, all caps. Then I'd simply state in a line or two what we
INT. DARK BEDROOM - NIGHT (MEMORY FLASH)
Diana runs from the bed to the closet and flings open the door. Piles of papers
rain down on her.
EXT. BACK YARD - DAY
Diana sits on the swing, startled by the memory.
State the memory flash simply and clearly, describing what we're seeing. (back to top)
Q 5: I've never submitted a script to anything! What is
the accepted way of binding? My sister is an author and with manuscripts you never bind it in any
Scripts are bound with brass brads, heavy brads that will hold 100 pages or so.
You don't want those tiny ones. Three is preferable to two, but two are acceptable. You don't really
need a cover, except for your cover page, but some people put card stock paper of any color. I used
to put black or gray on mine, but now don't use any. An agency might put the script in their own
script covers to indicate who's sending it, but you really don't need to. (back to
Q 6: What's the best way to keep up with ever changing
script format trends?
The best way is to read selling scripts is in their natural state, so not
published screenplays. Published scripts often change the formatting of screenplays to make them look
more like plays. Many times they relate changes that are made in editing. It's important to read
selling screenplays to get an idea what the market is buying.
You can go to internet screenwriting sites such as The Daily Script or Drew's
Script-O-Rama and read scripts online. You can find old scripts that are wonderful reads, but you
should also read current drafts.
If you're really interested in selling script's formats, you need to find drafts
of the original scripts. Once a script is handed over to one of the top writers for rewrites, they
tend to become more developed and look like scripts from 10 and 15 years ago. (back to
Q 7: Do writing programs help, and could you recommend any
good programs -- or is there one major program that everyone uses?
There are two programs most people consider the best. Final Draft and Movie Magic
screenwriting software. You can check them out at FinalDraft.com and Screenplay.com, and I think get a free demo copy of each.
They're not cheap, but sometimes both companies offer student discounts.
If they are too expensive, there are free style sheets available as well some at a
lower cost on the internet.
However, screenwriting really isn't about having all the bells and whistles.
Programs like Final Draft and Movie Magic have things that you won't have any use for at this stage
(unless you're scripting a short or low budget film you are going to go out and shoot). Production
numbers, colored revisions, cast sheets -- these aren't really necessary for you to get your script
out of your head and onto the printed page. So don't think you're shortchanging yourself if you go
for something cheaper right now. (back to top)
Q 8: Does my main character have to change?
If it's not going to be your protagonist, then the protagonist and the conflict
should change one of your other major characters. The feeling is that if characters are involved in a
strong conflict, the force of dealing with that conflict will bring about change, one way or another,
good or bad. And a close look at good and great movies supports this.
On the surface of Erin Brockovich it appears that Erin really doesn't
change but forces other characters around her to change and accept her. But if we look more closely
we see Erin is actually changed profoundly by the conflicts she encounters in the movie. (See my
article The Emotional Pattern of Plot in the Screenwriters Column for
a more complete analysis of this aspect of the film.) Erin's anger, resentment and defensiveness all
undergo a dramatic change from the start of the film to its ending. Erin learns to listen to others
and consider their feelings, too.
In movies such as Dumb and Dumber, the whole point is that Lloyd and Harry
are incapable of change. However, they do change the lives of Mary and her husband by exposing the
kidnappers and allowing the FBI to save the day. Although this is superficially handled, as it is in
most films in this genre, it is still there.
Change is important because it plays to your audience's understanding of conflict.
We know from experience that when people are involved in strong conflicts, something has to give.
Either a person will be defeated by the conflict or it will force the person to grow and change to
In action films, we often feel like the protagonist doesn't change. But often in
the more successful films that spawn franchises we see that in the first films the protagonist's
change is pivotal to the drama. In Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, both protagonists
undergo radical changes. And in the last James Bond film, Die Another Day, James is
dramatically changed by the conflict he encounters at the hands of his North Korean nemesis.
A character's transformation doesn't have to be 180 degrees. But it should be
appropriate to the measure of the character in the particular conflict. Understand what your audience
knows: we don't change easily. Usually, we have to be raked over the coals before we realize just how
important change is to our lives. Because your audience knows this, they are innately interested in
seeing how conflict affects the characters, and this can help a script build even more tension to keep
your viewers, and readers, glued to your story. (back to top)
Q 9: I have a story that takes place over many years, and
people say the script seems unfocused. How do I focus it?
Unlike books, it's difficult for films to cover long periods of time effectively.
Although there are some films that succeed with this type of story strategy, there are more that
The ones that often work best have an immediate problem for the character to deal
with - one that is important and has consequences. This problem/conflict helps to create a unity of
action and purpose for the work.
Without reading your script, it's impossible to tell for sure what the problem is.
But there are a couple of possibilities.
- The obvious place to start is with your theme. Do you know
what it really is? A theme will help define the choices you have to make for your character, but it's
not enough to focus a story covering a wide span of time.
- More importantly, do you have a consistent main conflict for your protagonist
that will transcend the length of time you're covering? As mentioned above, a main conflict creates
unity of action that helps focus separate pieces of a story into a unified whole. Often writers
covering a person's life string together a series of incidents that may mirror real life, but don't
create meaningful relationships between the events. When your audience tries to assign meaning to the
events, they don't find the connections and so the work feels unfocused.
- A main conflict provides unity of action and helps the audience track the
superficial meaning of the story in terms of this conflict. It's no accident why many of the great
bio pics often use nonlinear structures to cover large amounts of time, but will have a very clear
conflict in the story frame (will the journalist discover what 'Rosebud' means? Will Isadore catch up
with the man in the Bugatti in The Loves of Isadora?). Even films like It's a Wonderful
Life have a current problem the protagonist faces to frame the story while it goes off into other
episodes that dramatize the problems in George Baily's life.
In the recent Seabiscuit, which covers many years, there are two strong and
consistent conflicts that could have been used to unify the horse racing movie and provide audiences
with a more satisfying first hour: The Santa Anita Handicap and War Admiral. The Santa Anita Handicap
- the Hundred-Grander - was the perfect frame for the story that, for some reason, was ignored by the
filmmakers. What resulted was a ponderous first hour detailing the characters' back-stories but
proving tedious to even the most forgiving audience members.
By introducing these conflicts early the filmmakers could have used both to keep
the story tracking and tension mounting until the final climax when the conflict is resolved and the
story's meaning made clear.
What you need to be sure of is that you have a strong controlling idea/theme and a
strong enough central conflict. Your theme helps your audience connect the separate episodes into a
meaningful relationship that clearly says what you mean. Your conflict helps the audience track the
story in terms of action and meaning. (back to top)
Q 10: What is a controlling idea?
For me, a controlling idea is really your theme. It's what your story's about.
Whether you're writing a screenplay with a singular protagonist, an ensemble film or a nonlinear film,
you need something that helps keep all the pieces of your screenplay - the story, plot, characters,
scenes, conflict, obstacles, complications, subtext, etc. - in relationship to each other so that when
the script ends it means something.
Many scripts suffer because they set up or suggest a theme or controlling idea at
the beginning of the script but don't develop it. Then a whole new idea emerges at the final climax
that the audience hasn't been prepared for; this causes the script (or film) to feel disjointed and
confused. The shift in focus usually alienates or confuses the audience because it feels like they've
stepped into a different movie. This means we need to be clear from the beginning what the theme is,
and true to it, and know what aspect of it needs to be set up at the start and then how it's going to
develop through to the final climax.
Another way of thinking about the controlling idea is as the human issue you're
dealing with in your script. This puts the idea into human terms. Are you dealing with a family in
crisis after the death of a parent? If this is the issue that takes up half to three-quarters of your
script, and you suddenly careen into how the eldest child makes out at college (leaving the family
behind), you're probably shifting focus too dramatically. Your audience will feel you've veered too
far from what you've set up. On the other hand, if this eldest child leaves home and starts college as
the ending beat of act one, you could shift focus here and start this story - as long as the family
matter doesn't disappear entirely from the script. Your theme will develop in terms of the character
relationships as your story develops. (back to top)
Q 11: I want to ask you about story management. How should
I manage the different story lines and characters without neglecting one or another?
What you're asking, I think, is about how to develop the other story lines in your
script. You have to understand three things very clearly. First, what is your story really about?
Second, what is the central conflict, the one you're pinning the structure of your film on? You really
need to understand this very clearly, because as you veer away from this story line, you still need to
understand how it's moving during the time that you're away from it. The movie continues in its own
momentum off screen, even while you're showing something else on screen. Third, and this is maybe most
important, how will this other story line impact my main one in the story. Remember, that sub plots
are story lines that are subordinate to the main one and supporting it. That means the best sub plots
are those that as they develop either impact the main plot or are impacted by the main plot.
This is what creates a strong integration of the material.
If you look at American Beauty you see three main story lines, Lester's,
Carolyn's and Janey's. Lester's is the main story line, the one that carries the structure of the
film. At the beginning of the movie he's trying to make contact with Janey, with Carolyn, with someone
but nothing works. This is a marriage and a family that's failing. As the story develops we see each
of the three characters develop specific wants that define their story lines. Lester fixates on Angela
(and creates an even bigger rift with Janey), Carolyn becomes involved with Buddy Kane, and Janey
allows Ricky into her life. The development with Lester and Angela impacts Lester's relationship with
Janey. Carolyn's relationship impacts hers with Lester. And Janey's relationship with Ricky changes
hers with Angela's and that leads to the climax.
In a story that isn't about all these close relationships that can easily become
intertwined, there needs to be other unity established. This can come from theme (and/or place). The
subplots can support the theme that the main plot is carrying, filling it out so that we better
understand the story's meaning. It can be used to contrast the main theme, but still helps us
understand the meaning of the main theme through contrast. Extreme examples of these are Nashville,
Short Cuts, Gosford Park.
Unity can also be established through plot action, developing other aspects of
your story for your main character in the subplots. Tootsie is a good example of this. (back to top)
Q 12: When your story focuses on storytellers/storytelling
(i.e., Big Fish) how do you keep that from calling attention to itself so the audience isn't
I think it's a rhythm thing. You want to make sure that the narrator has a
distinct voice. You want to give the details to move the story forward, but consider the voice a
character in the story. As with any character you must know what the voice adds to the story, what its
purpose is in the story, how it increases tension in the scene and the scenes that follow, and how it
helps to make sense of all the other elements. (back to top)
Q 13: I start a new scene when characters move from one
location to another even though the same conversation, subject, etc continues. I have more than 80
scenes...all the time. Does this interfere with the reader's following the screenplay?
It sounds like you're doing it just right. A production manager breaking down the
script would know what locales he'd need, and reader ought to easily understand where the story is
taking place. Sounds good to me. (back to top)
Q 14: What is a beat sheet?
A beat sheet is an abbreviated outline. You're focusing on the main points to see
how they build together. Instead of writing out a scene heading with a detailed description of the
action for a full outline, a beat sheet focuses on the main points of the story with less detail. So
an outline might give you each scene, including establishing exteriors and so on, while a beat sheet
might say "Joan goes home and confronts her father." In moving this from beat sheet to outline, you
might do this beat or point in several scenes that flesh out the details.
A beat sheet works best when the writer really knows the story well and he or she
is just working alone. But beat sheets are used in episodic TV where the other writers all know the
stories and characters, and so they understand what the writer's trying to do.
Check out my article THE SEQUENCE OF STORY for
some other information about beat sheets. (back to top)
Q 15: I'm a screenwriter who teaches screenwriting, and
it's been hammered into me not to use "angles" or call any shots, so I try to teach my students how to
take care of point of view through scene headings and action description. Using the script in the back
of your book, Writing Short Films, I can show them how it would be
done by substituting AT THE BAR for ANGLE, etc., but I was curious about your thoughts on this for
beginning writers. Should I just make them aware that some prefer this way and some allow that, or do
I need to be more prescriptive (for their sake if they decide to approach the industry)?
"Ray's Male Heterosexual Dance Bar" is a script that was written in the
80's. It's written in the form of a TV script, by someone who probably writes on staff. In television,
the writers wield the power and have a tendency to include more direction in the script.
I don't know for sure about Bryan Gordon, but my guess is that's his background.
The film was produced by Showtime through its Chanticleer Discovery Program. He wrote for himself to
direct, and may have been giving them a detailed plan of what he envisioned. Also, the film is unique
in that most of it is in one location, which he divides up to make more use of it. I weighed changing
the script as you've described (AT THE BAR) but this was the script the producers gave us to use in
the book, and it won the Oscar. I thought it was more important to represent it accurately. (back to top)
Q 16: How do you come up with ideas?
One's tempted to be glib, but the process for coming up with ideas is going to be
different for everyone. Ideas are everywhere - in the people you meet and know, the situations of
life, different arenas, ideas and themes. I can't say that I have one set way I use. An idea for a
script may be based on an incident from my own life, a situation I've imagined, a news story I've
heard, a short story I've optioned, and so on. Every idea is different and has evolved in its own
The main thing is once you have an idea, you have to be able to develop it for
film. And not every idea is going to be a good idea for a movie. For a movie, you have to be able to
develop the idea into three things:
- A character who will act on his desires. It's the old "What
does my character want?" question that has to be answered.
- A conflict to drive the script for 90 to 120 pages and give it some sort of
- A theme so we understand what it's all about.
If you're asking "how do you come up with great ideas that will sell?" that's a
more difficult question. Your idea will still need to conform to the above criteria, but you're now
trying to find that magic formula everyone else is after - what makes an idea unique, appealing and
A great movie idea sets up a character who will act and act drastically, either on
her own desires or because she's been forced to. There will be something unique and compelling about
the character and/or the situation she finds herself in. The stakes have to be high, if not life or
death in the physical sense, then in an emotional sense. The idea has to intrigue people, to make
them want to learn more about the characters and/or the situation. (back to
Q 17: Some screenwriting teachers argue that 3 act
structure is old hat, and that films now have evolved into a 4 act structure. What do you think about
Shakespeare worked in a five act structure, most modern plays are written in a two
act structure. Traditional network hour-long drama is plotted out in 4 acts where the commercial
breaks come. Syndicated hour-longs are plotted in 5, and cable uses whatever they like, sometimes 6 or
more. When we write a tv movie for the network we work in structures of 7 or 9, I believe (it's been
a while). But whatever it is, it's still beginning, middle and end.
It sounds to me as if they are using the midpoint as an act break, which is fine.
A midpoint is strongest when something significant happens there. But you could just as easily point
to a film like Risky Business that isn't even 90 minutes and see it in three acts of equal parts, with
a strong midpoint, too.
You have your key focal points which are your opening, inciting incident, first
act turning point, midpoint, second act turning point, and climax. How you want to group them depends
on the medium, theater or film, and the specific story. Though McKee talks about 3 act structure, he
breaks the movie Seven down into 4 acts. This is because he can clearly see movements that
build to turning points that push the story in a new direction. I can analyse the same film in three
and use his 2nd act turning point as my midpoint. Am wrong and he's right? It's just semantics
really, isn't it?
What matters most is that you develop a way of looking at writing that makes sense
to you. But stories, since the beginning of time, have developed with a beginning, middle and end,
and I doubt if it will change much before the end of time. (back to top)
Q 18: Is it possible to over-develop a character? In the
narrative parts of my script I tried to develop my character as much as I could, but it turns out to
be a lot of writing.
Theoretically, I don't think you can over-develop a character. In a great film,
characterization develops in concert with the plot to such an extent that you can say the plot really
defines the character. It's like the saying from Heraclitus, "A man's character is his destiny."
However, if you develop a character apart from the main conflict, with numerous
scenes telling and showing us who he is, then you could be, and very probably are, in trouble. You're
spending time showing us a character but not a story, and chances are the audience is going to lose
In screenwriting and film, one has to make the leap in understanding that
characters aren't what they say, but what they do. And to this extent, it is really in showing how a
character responds to the conflict that you are explaining who that character is. Yes, we need some
background on the character to understand his motivations. But if the background is taking up too much
time, it's getting in the way of the main story. The key is figuring out how to reveal character in
an interesting way by discovering the conflicts, main and minor, that best illustrate your character's
personality and at the same time tell the story.
See my article THE ESSENCE OF CHARACTER for more
on this topic. (back to top)
Q 19: How does the writer who's used to taking the
protagonist's action as a measure of his narrative's progress incorporate the emotional ideas you
present and prepare his beats when using a step outline? How are the two concepts
You can't forget about action and conflict. But what you can do (and what most
struggling writers don't do) is think about how the conflict affects the main characters. What does
the conflict do to them? This is what then need to use in their plots.
In some stories, a character's biography isn't so important that it has to all be
told (but this doesn't mean you the writer don't have to know it, you must to write authentically). We
need enough to "get" the protagonist at the start so that as we watch them respond to the conflict, we
see the depth of character he or she has. This is true revelation of character. We see it in their
actions in response to the stress of the story.
This doesn't mean character revelation of the "secret" like Mrs. Mulray's in the
film Chinatown isn't important. But the revelation of Jake's character is how he responds to
this information -- it breaks away his cynicism so that now he wants more than anything to help her.
Or in Monster, when we hear what happened to Aileen in her childhood we can't help but feel for
her and understand where all this rage comes from.
So the way you integrate the concepts are to understand them in terms of cause and
effect. The cause is the action and the effect the emotion and meaning. When we understand that
stories are as much about the effect of conflict as the conflict itself, we will deepen the meaning of
our work. If you look at really successful action films, you'll find that time is spent on this angle
in most of them. I can't help remembering the scene in Independence Day when the First Lady is
dying and in the midst of all that action and noise, and I found tears in my eyes.
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Q 20: In regards to your article on the 'ensemble film',
how would you classify The Red Violin? And, forgive me if this sounds like a slight, but of all
the films mentioned by you, how could you overlook possibly the greatest ensemble film of recent
I'd classify The Red Violin as an omnibus film, 4 short films united by the
violin. These stories, to the best of my recollection, are not intercut. There's a tradition of
these types fo films -- Tales of Manhattan, 20 Bucks, etc.
As for Pulp Fiction, "the greatest"? Sounds like hyperbole to me. But that
aside, yes, it's an ensemble film, but it's also a nonlinear film. Given the choice of how I'd
classify it, I'd rather put it in this catagory. Personally, I think Reservoir Dogs is the
better film. I heard Tarantino recently in an interview say Reservoir Dogs is the one film of
his he wouldn't change a frame of.
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Q 21: I'm a screenwriter with two films produced (2 major
stars, respectively). I've now taken on the task of an ensemble film. Major headache as far as
structure goes. I read your article on ensemble films but it didn't seem to address my dilemma on
structure. I have six protagonists in basically one location. It's a dark comedy that deals with a
focus group. I'd appreciate any help that you could give me.
Take a look at Diner. Look how they use Mickey Rourke's story line as the main one
because it's the most dramatic with the loan sharks. The other important plot lines climax around his
at the act one and act two turning points, but his is the one that holds the structure.
You may have too many characters with 6 if you're trying to give them their own
separate plot lines. This doesn't mean you have to "x" out any. Just decide if they all need major
plot lines. In Diner, we follow Mickey Rourke, Tim Daly, Steve G., Kevin Bacon and Daniel Stern, but
there are a couple of other characters in the group too. That's five major lines, but as the stories
progress through to the end, the plot lines combine, Daniel Stern's and Ellen Barkin's with Mickey
Rourke's, Tim Daly with Steve G. Kevin Bacon's sort of just hangs there, but we don't care, because he
can't really change that much, can he?
Short Cuts and Nashville again use many characters and their lines intersect at
points. But the turning points that turn the action are generally the most dramatic ones.
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Q 22: Good character development lends itself to providing
some facts about the character's background and upbringing, but how "in-depth" does a writer need to
go to provide enough detail?
You can never go wrong if you know as much as possible about your character. Who
she is and what he does, where he comes from, who she loved -- all these things contribute to your
understanding of the character and therefore your ability to make that character seem real.
I must admit that I don't do lengthy character biographies on my own characters.
But the characters who have been the most successful in my own scripts have been the ones I know the
best, either because they're the closest to me and those I've known in biographical detail, or I've
spent time getting to know them in the writing process.
The thing is when you know a character inside and out, it's not about inventing
the key detail that makes the character feel true; the details emerge through his/her thoughts, words
Not every story will demand a lot of back story and therefore character background
to tell it well. Sometimes you just need just a detail or two. In the film Chinatown, we don't
know where Gittes comes from and who his parents were. But we know he used to be a cop, and there was
a girl once, in Chinatown, and he couldn't save her. In an early draft of the script, Robert Towne
gives two pages between Evelyn and Gittes to paint in the details of this past relationship, but later
all that detail is cut and just comes down to a few sentences and feelings that do it perfectly.
Ultimately it comes down to feeling that you know enough to start writing. In the
writing, you're going to discover more.
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Q 23: How do you create a story premise?
I'm not exactly sure if we're defining story premise the same way. Lajos Egri, who
authored The Art of Dramatic Writing, describes a premise that tells us what we learn from the
work: True love conquers even death, ruthless ambition leads to destruction. These are really very
specific themes that the works will illustrate. They tell you what the action is about and what
happens in the end.
Robert McKee describes the word more liberally in his book Story. He talks
about it as jumping off point, what if a great white shark attacked a small New England town, what
would happen? With this, you're looking to create a situation, some problem that has a sense of
urgency in its need to be solved. What if a unhappy woman met an equally unhappy guy and they fell
into a relationship? What would happen if she's married, though unfilled, and then he's crazy, but she
hasn't realized it yet? You can see that there's conflict in each of these situations. Your job as the
writer is to solve it for the characters and audience in a meaningful way.
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Q 24: What is the
relationship between the driving force and premise?
The premise will be supported by the driving force. If your premise of your plot
is "True love conquers even death" then your driving force must in some way be connected to this.
Again, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo loves Juliet and breaks with his family to marry her. In the
end, the lovers both die to stay united in death. The premise is illustrated in the action of the
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Q 25: What is the
"driving force" in a story and how do you create a single driving force?
A driving force in a story is determined by the specific objective or goal your
protagonist desires. This objective can be something he or she wants and pursues, like the Ark of the
Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or to kill the shark in Jaws. It can mainly to
solve the problem that develops for the character usually in the first act that then drives the
character's actions in the middle and toward the climax and resolution.The main thing is that the
protagonist must be committed to this aim.
So to create it, you must determine what the specifics objectives are. Many new
writers will tell you their characters want something like love or acceptance. But these "wants,"
however legitimate, are too vague.You must find a way to represent love. So in Romeo and
Juliet, Romeo wants Juliet, whom he loves, and crosses his family and hers, to have it. There can
be other conflicts for the character, but the driving force will center upon the main desire the
protagonist must fulfill in the plot.
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Q 26: How do you indentify
the Act 1 climax? And what separates it from the inciting incident? Is it an event or a beat, or
It can be an event or a beat, depending on what type of story you're developing.
Your act 1 climax is usually where you are going to declare what the true conflict/problem is for your
protagonist. For Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, she starts out with a problem concerning Ms. Gulch and
her dog. But after all the events of act one, she winds up in Oz and on the road to the Emerald City.
In Juno, a more subtle film, the first act sets up her problem - she's pregnant, young and not really
ready to be a mom. Once she decides she can't abort, she's looking for parents to adopt. So by the
end of act 1 she's made the decision to go meet Vanessa and Mark. Act two now follows what develops
Now, what might the inciting incident be in these two films? The action in The
Wizard of Oz is pretty strong. Dorothy comes home from School with a problem, Ms Gulch wants to put
down her dog. Dorothy's looking for help from everyone on the farm. As she does, we meet the cast of
characters, but no one can help her. When Ms. Gulch arrives, she shows them a paper from the Sheriff
(I think), and takes Toto away. But then what happens? Toto escapes! When he returns to Dorothy,
she decides to take action, and that's to runaway. It's this action that puts her in jeopardy. A
further development has her encounter Professor Marvel, who convinces her in light of the weather
coming in that she should go home. She heads home, but is too late, and this is what sends her on her
journey. Someone might say that meeting Prof. Marvel is the inciting incident, but I think it's Toto
escaping Ms Gulch.
In Juno, some people might say that Juno getting pregnant is the inciting
incident. But for me this is the opening of the story. It's like people saying that the fake Mrs.
Mulray hiring Gittes in Chinatown is the inciting incident. This is just the first step. The inciting
incident for Jake in Chinatown is when the real Mrs. Mulray shows up and confronts him with a real
In Juno, for me, the inciting incident is when she can't go through with an
abortion and decides to go for adoption. This puts her on course to meet Vanessa and Mark, which is
the development of the story. What Juno's really wrestling with is whether love is possible in her
world. She seems cool, but she's very cynical (brought on by the desertion by her mother). She wants
her unborn child to be wanted and loved by a Mom and a Dad. So the developments with Mark, which at
first seem innocent, but then become increasingly inappropriate, throw this into doubt, first for the
audience who starts to pick up on Mark's immaturity before Juno, and then for Juno when he says he's
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