Saturday, May 25, 2013

Screenwriting Mistake #60: Forgetting that Cell Phones Exist

It's that time of year again when I've been reading a bunch of student screenplays and I'm encouraged by how good some of them have been. However, there's one issue that cropped up in several scripts that I wanted to mention here today – cell phones exist.

I've never liked it when characters in movies and TV series just show up at someone's house without any warning. Fist of all, the person they're visiting is always home (What are the odds?) and second, this is just a lazy contrivance to add the forced drama of a surprise visit to a scene that would otherwise consist entirely of dialogue. Since everyone has a cell phone now, there's no excuse for doing this any more. People don't just drop by someone's house unannounced like this, so neither should your characters. If you want to see an example of this in action, watch any episode of the TV show "Grimm." Almost every week, someone shows up at another character's house unannounced. Every time that happens, I actually yell at their writers through the screen. But then I keep watching, so maybe this problem is more about me than them.

If you want to add drama to a dialogue-intensive scene, there are tons of other ways you can do that. Your first option is always to set the scene in a location that's more interesting than a doorway. You can also introduce some interesting actions into the scene, which usually involves setting it somewhere that has more visual possibilities. This is all straight out of Blake Snyder's "Pope in the pool" chapter, so please refer to his book for a more eloquent explanation. (Seriously, I should know better than to try to write blog posts on a Saturday morning.)

Or you could even use a cell phone to create more visual interest, maybe by having a guy call his girlfriend while driving, then he crashes his car. Okay, that's not much better than just showing up unannounced. How about, the couple could meet at a visual location, such as a putt putt golf course or a hockey game or a Carnaval parade, and then the girl can start off by holding up her phone and saying, "I came to the location you sent me. Now what do you want?" Did I mention that I'm writing this on a Saturday morning? Wait, I've got it! Do exactly what Blake Snyder says and have them meet at the Vatican pool! Then you can show a cool scene of them being chased by the Swiss Guard with their awesome harlequin uniforms. Problem solved.

The bottom line is that there's no excuse for a screenplay character to show up by surprise at someone's house or at any other location. If you want to put something like this in a screenplay, it needs to be absolutely necessary for that scene and you need to demonstrate why calling or texting in advance wasn't an option. You have been warned, "Grimm" writing staff!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Django Unchained Analysis - Should it win Best Screenplay?

Django Unchained
By Quentin Tarantino

General Information

·    Genre – Western
·    Number of pages – 166
·    Movie length – 165 minutes
·    Time period – 1800s

Since I have published the Structural Template that I think all scripts should use, I like to analyze screenplays regularly to see whether or not they adhere to this template and to determine if the standard script structure is changing. The vast majority of commercially and critically successful films still do follow the same basic structural format, which is why I continue to use that as the basis for all of my own screenwriting and screenplay analyses. 

I was particularly interested in analyzing the screenplay for “Django Unchained,” since its extreme length and typical Tarantino indulgences made it seem like the script wouldn't adhere to structural norms. Then add the fact that this script also won the Golden Globe, making it the one to beat for the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award, and I just had to give it a thorough read. Any time there's a critically and commercially successful movie that seems to defy industry standards, I’m all over it like red dye #2 on a Tarantino movie set.

So here's my analysis of the screenplay for "Django Unchained," which you can find at:

Those of you who have seen the movie will note a number of differences between it and the screenplay, but the majority of the movie plays out exactly as it’s written in the script. The analysis below is chock full of SPOILERS, so please only read it if you don’t mind knowing pretty much everything about this movie. At the end, I’ll summarize everything and will even announce whether or not I think “Django Unchained” will win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay this year. The answer may surprise you! But it probably won’t.

Beat List

1 – Django and Broomhilda are sold to different slave owners.
3 – Dr. Schultz stops the Speck brothers and says that he’s looking for Django.
5 – Schultz shoots Ace and then Dickey’s horse, breaking Dicky’s leg.
6 – Schultz needs Django to identify the Brittle brothers.
8 – Schultz buys Django and Ace’s horse from Dickey.
10 – Schultz gives Django Ace’s horse.
13 – Django and Schultz go into a saloon in Daughtrey.
16 – Schultz offers Django his freedom, money and clothes if he helps find the Brittle brothers.
17 – Schultz shoots the sheriff.
20 – Schultz explains to the Marshall why he shot the sheriff and asks him for $200.
21 – Django tells Schultz that his goal is to find his wife and buy her freedom.
23 – Schultz tells Django there will be a record of Broomhilda’s sale at the Greeneville courthouse.
24 – They arrive at Bennett Manor to look for the Brittles.
29 – Django finds the Brittles on Bennett’s plantation.
32 – Django shoots Big John. (First killing)
33 – Django whips and shoots Little Raj.
34 – Schultz shoots Ellis.
36 – Bennett tells Schultz that Django will be dead by tomorrow morning.
40 – Regulators come to kill Django. Schultz blows a lot of them up by shooting sticks of dynamite that he planted.
42 – Django shoots Bennett. He enjoys it a lot.
43 – Django’s tells Schultz that his wife is named Broomhilda and she speaks German.
45 – Schultz tells Django the legend of Brunhilde and realizes that Django will do anything to save his wife.
46 – Schultz asks Django to partner with him through the winter. Django agrees.
49 – Django shoots Smitty Bacall in front of Smitty’s son.
51 – Django has gotten much better at shooting and has become a good bounty hunter.
53 – Django and Schultz arrive in Greeneville.
55 – Django and Schultz go to the records office.
56 – In flashback, Mike Harmony buys Broomhilda for his awkward son, Scotty.
61 – Scotty takes Broomhilda to the Cleopatra Club where they meet Calvin Candie.
65 – Scotty loses Broomhilda in a card game to Calvin.
67 – Calvin shoots Scotty then grabs Broomhilda and leaves.
68 – Schultz tells Django that Calvin has Broomhilda at Candyland, a Mandingo fighting house.
70 – Schultz asks Django to play a black slaver and Mandingo fighting expert to get an invitation to Candyland.
74 – Django and Schultz meet Calvin during a wrestling match.
78 – After some tense questioning, Django tells Calvin they want to buy a fighter for $12,000.
80 – Calvin invites Django and Schultz to come to Candyland with him in the morning.
84 – On the way, Trackers catch a runaway slave named D’Artagnan.
87 – Schultz offers to buy D’Artagnan, but Django stops him.
89 – They arrive at Candyland.
91 – Django and Stephen clash at first sight.
97 – Ace shoots one of the new Mandingos because he doesn’t like his prospects.
99 – Cody shoots Big Fred too.
102 – Schultz asks to see Broomhilda, but she’s in the hot box. Calvin tells Stephen to remove her.
106 – Django threatens Stephen. Stephen backs down, but is furious.
108 – Lara Lee brings Broomhilda to Schultz.
110 – Django and Broomhilda reunite. She faints.
112 – Stephen is suspicious of Broomhilda whistling happily while she works.
115 – Lara Lee says that it looks like Broomhilda only has eyes for Django. Stephen notices that they all react nervously.
116 – Stephen confronts Broomhilda about knowing Django. She denies it.
118 – Schultz agrees to buy Eskimo Joe for $12,000 after he can draw up a contract and have a doctor examine him.
121 – Stephen realizes that Broomhilda was lying about not knowing Django.
123 – Stephen tells Calvin that the guys are only here to buy Broomhilda.
126 – Calvin confronts the guys and starts negotiations over Broomhilda.
128 – Schultz buys Broomhilda for $12,000.
130 – Calvin won’t finish the deal until Schultz shakes his hand.
131 – Schultz shoots Calvin. Everyone attacks Django and Broomhilda.
132 – Django wakes up naked and tied upside-down in a stable.
135 – Ace starts to castrate Django, but Stephen stops him. They’re going to sell him to the Dickeys instead.
136 – Stephen tortures Django with a hot poker.
140 – Ace gives Django to the Dickey men to take to the mines.
145 – Django convinces the Dickey guys to stop and talk about his bounty offer for the Bacall gang.
148 – The Dickey men ask the slaves about Django and they confirm his story about being a bounty hunter.
150 – Django kills the three Dickey men.
151 – Django frees the three slaves, gets the dynamite and heads back to Candyland.
153 – Django stops at the Trackers’ shack and kills them all.
158 – Django rescues Broomhilda.
160 – Django blows up a lot of the Candie house just as the family is about to enter after the funeral.
163 – Django has a standoff with all 6 of the Candies and Stephen.
164 – Django shoots all of them.
165 – Django and Broomhilda ride away.

Character Descriptions

·    Name – Django
·    Age – 30s
·    External goal – To get his wife back from Candyland.
·    Internal problem – He’s black and in the South during the time of slavery.
·    How are the external goal and internal problem in conflict with each other?
There’s no way a black man in the South can find and rescue a slave on his own.

·    Name – Calvin Candie
·    Age – 40s
·    How does the antagonist embody the protagonist’s internal problem?
He’s a ruthless slaver who owns Broomhilda.
·    Is the antagonist more powerful than the protagonist? How do we know?
Yes, he’s a rich white man in 1800s Tennessee.
·    Is there an Internal Antagonist?
Yes, Stephen. He represents the worst kind of slave and can identify things about Django and Broomhilda that white people wouldn’t know.

·    Name – Dr. King Schultz
·    Age – 50s
·    Does he have the same internal problem as the protagonist?
No, he doesn’t even believe in slavery.
·    How does the helper assist the protagonist?
He trains him, gives him money and other things, and he agrees to go with Django to look for his wife out of a sense of obligation.

Love Interest
·      Broomhilda – Django’s wife and the object of his external goal.

Structure Outline

Statement of Theme (Page 3)
Django and Broomhilda are separated and sold to different owners. (Page 1 – 1%)
It’s usually a good idea to have a character (preferably the protagonist) state the theme of the story out loud in the first few pages of the screenplay. For example, in the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” Harry says at the beginning, “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex always gets in the way.” However, the theme of “Django” is about reuniting slaves who are separated from their loved ones, which we see dramatically right at the start when that happens to Django and Broomhilda, without the characters needing to say anything. This establishes exactly what the story is about right from the start, which works great.

First Catalyst (10%)
Schultz offers Django his freedom if he helps find the Brittle brothers. (Page 16 – 10%)
The purpose of this catalyst is to hit the protagonist with something that will change his life in such a significant way that it will ultimately result in him beginning to pursue his external goal at the start of act two. This proposal from Schultz starts Django down a completely different path than he was on up until this point and leads directly to Django going after Broomhilda in the second act. Also, like a good catalyst, this is something that happens to the protagonist, not something the protagonist does. This is a perfect first catalyst with perfect timing.

Second Catalyst (17%)
Django finds the Brittles on Bennett’s plantation and kills two of them. (Page 29 – 17%)
Like the first catalyst, this one is perfectly timed, but unlike the first one, this event is an action that Django takes, rather than something that happens to him. Catalysts are more effective when they happen to the protagonist, but this particular one is actually very effective, considering that it’s not a true catalyst. When Django kills his first white men, who are the ones who hurt Broomhilda and him so severely, there’s no doubt that this causes a profound change in Django. For this reason, this catalyst works well, but I do still prefer catalysts that clearly happen to the protagonist.

For example, Dr. Schultz could have told Django that his only job is to identify the Brittle brothers and that he shouldn’t touch them at all since that would put Django’s life in danger. But then Big John could get the drop on Schultz, forcing Django to take action. That would have no impact on the flow of the story and would, in my opinion, be a more effective catalyst since it would be something that happened to Django that forced him to take action. Plus, we would still get to see Django beating Little Raj and killing both him and Big John, which is such a great moment in this story.

While I do think that this structural point could have been more effective, it still accomplishes the goal of spurring Django into action and does push him toward beginning his pursuit of rescuing Broomhilda by demonstrating his effectiveness to Schultz as a bounty hunter.

Plot Point 1 (25%)
Schultz asks Django to partner with him through the winter in order to learn how to be a bounty hunter. (Page 46 – 28%)
The first Plot Point is the event where the protagonist starts to pursue his external goal, signaling the beginning of Act Two. This event clearly marks the first step that Django takes to begin trying to rescue Broomhilda because this is where his training begins. Up until this point, Django has only told Schultz what his goal is, but he hasn’t begun trying to accomplish it yet. From this point forward, everything Django does is in an effort to rescue Broomhilda. This is an excellent first Plot Point and it takes place very close to the 25% point of the script.

Twist 1 (37.5%)
Scotty loses Broomhilda in a card game to Calvin. (Page 65 – 39%)
The purpose of this Twist (or Complication) is to move the story in a new and more challenging direction for the protagonist. Up until now, Broomhilda was in a manageable situation with a controllable master in a relatively kind family. From this point on, she belongs to a ruthless slave trader who thinks nothing of abusing or killing his slaves on a whim. She is in much more danger now, and so are Django and Schultz. This first Twist works well and happens at exactly the right place.

Mid-point (50%)
Calvin invites Django and Schultz to come to Candyland with him. (Page 80 – 48%)
A good Mid-point acts as a point of no return for the protagonist. At this point in the screenplay, Django and Schultz start their journey toward Candyland where Django will either rescue Broomhilda or die trying. There is no turning back now, so this event functions perfectly as a mid-point and happens right in the center of the script, at the 48% point.

Twist 2 (62.5%)
Stephen is suspicious of Broomhilda whistling while she works. (Page 112 – 67%)
Like the first Twist, this second Twist should also move the story in a new and more challenging direction, which this one certainly does. This is the point where Stephen first suspects that Django and Schultz have been lying to Calvin and that Django actually knows Broomhilda. From this point on, the bad guys close in and make Django’s goal increasingly and overwhelmingly difficult to accomplish. This Twist is highly effective and occurs only a few pages later than ideal, though it’s definitely in the ballpark.

Plot Point 2 (75%)
Schultz shoots Calvin and everyone attacks Django and Broomhilda. (Page 131 – 79%)
The second Plot Point signifies the end of Act Two and should be an event that is so devastating to the protagonist that it makes his goal now seem impossible to achieve. When Django wakes up tied upside-down and naked with a man trying to castrate him, everyone in the audience will only think that Django is completely screwed. There’s no foreseeable way out of this situation for Django, so this event works great as the low point of the script, and it occurs very close to the expected 75% point.

The only thing that would have made this second Plot Point more devastating for Django is if he had been the one who caused it to happen, rather than Schultz. The end result is the same from the perspective of Django’s external goal, but it’s not as internally damaging of an event as if Django had destroyed his own chances of rescuing Broomhilda. For example, Django is the one who makes Stephen want revenge by beating and threatening him, which results in Stephen keeping such a close eye on him and Broomhilda that he notices when something doesn’t seem right. If this second Plot Point had also been the direct result of something that Django had done, it would have had a greater dramatic impact. That said, this is still a highly effective low point that works well for this story.

The ending of a script usually breaks down into three parts: Crisis, Climax and Resolution. The Crisis for Django is that he is sold to the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company, which is described as a fate much worse than death. The Climax is that Django uses the skills that he acquired from working with Schultz to outwit the mining company guys in order to escape and go back for Broomhilda. The Resolution is that he goes back to Candyland, kills all the white people, plus Stephen, and blows up the house. In one brief sequence, Django accomplishes his goal in a hugely dramatic Spaghetti Western fashion and then rides off into the distance with his wife.

This is a hell of a screenplay. While it is much longer than a traditional feature script and it does have a couple of minor deviations from the structural norm, it all works well to make the typical Tarantino bloodfest that his loyal fans have come to expect. I expected to find a lot of structural problems with a script of this length and with as many indulgences as Tarantino takes throughout the story, but he really nailed the structure and the character roles in this story. Even the unnecessary detours, such as the ludicrous scene where the Regulators are discussing the problems they’re having with the eyeholes in their masks, are so entertaining that the story never lags or fails to entertain. Though I do think that “Lincoln,” Argo,” and “Silver Linings Playbook” would have given Tarantino a run for his money, the fact that they’re all in the Adapted Screenplay category makes “Django Unchained” the frontrunner for Best Original Screenplay.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Announcement!

I'm happy to announce that I will be publishing a new screenwriting book soon called "Screenplay Suicide." This handy guide will list the most common ways that screenwriters shoot themselves in the foot (or other body parts) and make script readers want to tear their hair out. It will contain lots of examples of this kind of screenwriting mistake, along with easy fixes for these problems that will help you to write your script in a way that readers will love.

If you would like to be on the announcement mailing list for this book publication, just click here to send me a note and you'll not only be the first to know when the book is available, but you'll also receive a discount code to buy it at a reduced rate. As always, your contact info will never be shared with anyone.

Happy writing!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Screenwriting Seminar - Sept. 29

Screenwriting Seminar
Saturday, September 29

9:00 am - 12:30 pm — Structure Your Screenplay like the Pros
1:30 pm - 5:00 pm — 101 Most Common Screenwriting Mistakes

Location: ActivSpace 18th St. at Treat Ave., San Francisco

Structure Your Screenplay like the Pros
After reading thousands of screenplays, there’s no doubt that the scripts that studios are willing to pay for and turn into movies are the ones that have the best story structure. People who say they “don’t want to be constrained by structure” are making a huge rookie mistake by ignoring what Hollywood is looking for. In this seminar, you’ll learn not only how to structure your screenplay like a professional, but also how to use that knowledge to break the rules creatively.

You will take home: Convenient structural guide, detailed handouts explaining all course principles, several examples of how structure has worked in successful movies.

101 Most Common Screenwriting Mistakes
As a professional script reader, I see the same screenwriting mistakes over and over. They range from minor distractions to problems that are big enough to make a reader throw away your script immediately. Every screenplay reader wants to love your script, but is also looking for any excuse to pass on it. Don’t give them that excuse! In this seminar, you’ll learn what mistakes to avoid, as well as how to write a script that any reader will love.

You will take home: A list of all 101 screenwriting mistakes, as well as a bonus list of additional mistakes you should avoid after your script is finished.

Cost – $69 apiece or just $119 for both seminars!

Anyone who attends one of these seminars will receive a $20 discount on any of my script analysis services; people who attend both seminars will receive a $50 discount!

To register for one or both of these seminars, please write to

Phil Dyer is a professional script reader who provides story analyses for San Andreas Films and the Academy of Art University screenwriting department, as well as being a reader for the respected Bluecat Screenplay Competition.  

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Screenwriting Mistake #59: "Sort of"

I’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands, of screenplay pitches and I can probably count on one hand the number of pitches that didn’t include the words “sort of, “kind of” or “basically.” For example, people frequently say things like:

“Tony sort of starts trying to develop a better relationship with his father.”
“Patricia kind of begins working on her dance routine.”
“Wesley basically works on his anger problems so he can get along better with people.”

There are two problems with this kind of language in a pitch:

1.     It’s too vague. You need to make specific statements, such as, “Tony takes his father bowling every Friday night,” or, “Patricia joins the best dance troupe in New York and works her butt off for ten hours every day with the Bolshoi’s former Prima Ballerina,” or, “Wesley’s boss suspends him and requires him to complete 40 hours of anger management classes in order to come back to his job.” Specific is always better than vague.

2.     It shows that you aren’t sure of exactly what function that part of your script will be performing. You should know exactly why you put every single element of your script in your story and should be able to justify why that is the best possible element to perform that function. For example, if your protagonist is a country boy who wants to become a professional baseball pitcher and his dad is a dairy farmer, then a great way for him to train could be for his dad to set up milk bottles on a crate for his son to knock over. It highly specific and very justifiable, which is exactly what you want.

When you practice your pitches, pay attention for phrases like “sort of,” “kind of” and “basically,” and replace them with something more specific. Your pitch and your screenplay will be better for it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Screenwriting Seminar May 19th

Please note that the date for this event has changed to MAY 19th!

I'm happy to announce my next Screenwriting Seminar on Saturday, May 19th. This will be a 9-5 class giving you everything you need to know about:

- Screenplay structure
- How to create a great protagonist and antagonist
- What roles of your supporting characters should play
- The kinds of plot lines that audiences love
- And much, much more!

For more information, please go to:

May 19th Seminar Details

People who have taken this seminar have gone on to win screenwriting contest and have scripts optioned that we worked on together. This seminar will give you all of the information you need to do the same!