Thursday, December 9, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #32: Non-active verbs

I just finished evaluating a nice batch of scripts for a screenwriting class and am always impressed with the creativity of young, energetic writers. Even the scripts that I wrote the most feedback for were imaginative  and inspiring pieces of work. However, I did find myself writing a number of suggestions over and over on most of the scripts, and it thankfully wasn’t “redrum” or “All work and no play makes jack a dull boy.” Most of those suggestions are already listed on this blog, but one common problem that I have neglected to mention thus far is that new screenwriters tend to use far too many non-active, non-present-tense verbs in their descriptions.

Most scripts that I’ve read contain descriptions that use a lot of “be” verbs, “-ing” verbs, passive verbs and a healthy dose of “there is” and “there are.” I’ve even read some scripts that, for some reason, contained past tense in the descriptions: “Becky opened the window and looked outside.” Screenwriters should always use active, present-tense verbs in their descriptions, unless they need a present-progressive verb for an interrupted action, or if there is some other really good reason why a different type of verb would describe the action better. I don’t know what that reason would be, but it’s always possible.

Here are some paired examples to demonstrate why choosy screenwriters choose active verbs. See which descriptions you prefer:

1.     There are five roses lying on the bed.
2.     Five roses lie on the bed.

1.     John is dragged across the lawn and thrown into a car.
2.     Bill drags John across the lawn and throws him into a car.

1.     Shelly is happy.
2.     Shelly smiles.

1.     Steve is walking warily down the street.
2.     Steve walks warily down the street.

I’ll take #2 every time! Hmm, I should probably rephrase that. The point is that a good way to keep your descriptions as brief and active as possible is to use only active, present-tense verbs. It will make your script read faster and will never leave any doubt about which one of your characters is doing what.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #31: No slug line when location changes

This is a simple rule that takes a bit of practice to get used to – every time the camera moves, you need to write a new slug line. When I was first starting to write scripts, it didn’t occur to me to pay attention to exactly where each scene was taking place. I would write a slug line each time there was a new master location, but then would just describe in action when the characters were moving around that location, such as, "Charlie walks outside and gets into his car." I didn’t realize that I needed a new slug line each time that the action moved around the same general place.

The most common ways that I see this mistake now are when characters move in and out of buildings, among different rooms in the same building, or in and out of cars. Each one of those transitions needs its own new slug line.

Alternatively, a great way to denote when you're changing locations within a single master location is to write just the name of the room that the characters are moving into. For example:


John and Diane stumble inside, pausing to tear each other’s shirts off and kiss in the doorway.


Diane drags John down the hall, kicking off her heels as she goes.


Diane shoves John onto the bed and launches herself at him.


Ronald watches John and Diane from behind the bathroom door. He flosses as he enjoys the show.

Did that last example have to be about sex? No, it did not. Did there need to be flossing? Yes, because oral hygiene is very important. Besides, gratuitous sex can add interest to a seemingly lackluster topic, which was hopefully all you needed to help you remember to write a new slug line or one of those mini-slugs every time the cameraman has to haul his equipment to a new location. And I'm serious about the flossing.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #30: Copyrighted material

One mistake that I see frequently is when people try to incorporate existing songs, TV shows and other movies into their own scripts. The most frequent way that people do this is by naming the songs that they want to play during particular scenes, usually over montages. While the Turtles have made more money in royalties from romantic comedy courtship montages that feature the song “Happy Together” than most groups will make in a lifetime, not every group wants their songs to be used in movies, and not every director will agree with your choice of songs. Plus, if you write a song into your movie, then the studio must pay the royalties for it, whether it fits into their marketing plan for the movie or not.

Another way that this problem comes up in screenplays is when characters are watching a certain TV show or movie. The times that I’ve seen this in screenplays have usually been when the author was trying to make an allusion to another story that is similar to his script, or sometimes to use a well-known scene to underscore a point that the author is trying to make. While this does sometimes make a scene extremely cute (such as when Elliot kisses the girl in “E.T.” while E.T. watches an identical movie scene), it’s better to leave this sort of thing out of a spec script because it will always count against you to some degree.

If you feel like you need a particular song or a TV or movie clip in order to tell your story, then chances are that you are leaning on existing works to help you tell your story instead of relying on your own creativity to make your point in a unique way. Being unique is always better, so try to take any elements of your script that incorporate copyrighted materials and turn it into something so unique and memorable that future screenwriters will be alluding to it in their scripts. Unless they’ve read this blog post, of course.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #29: No bookend scenes

You already know that in the opening 10% of your screenplay you should introduce your protagonist and show us the things that we will need to know about her personality and environment. One of the protagonist characteristics that you should show is how unhappy or unsatisfied she is, so that the audience will root for her to change over the course of the story. The best way to demonstrate her unhappiness is to put her in a situation that she is unable to handle effectively because of that pesky internal flaw of hers. When she fails at an attempt to deal with some small challenge that most people would find pretty easy, the audience will know that she has problems and will want her to overcome them.

It’s then a good idea to show how much your protagonist has grown by the end of the story by writing a bookend scene at the end of the script that demonstrates that she has overcome her internal flaw (if, indeed, she has). A great way to do this is to repeat that scene from the beginning of the script where she handled a situation poorly, but now that she has overcome her internal flaw, she handles it with aplomb. (Have you noticed that people don’t use the word “aplomb” enough? Or maybe I use it too much. Never mind, we’ll talk about that later.) Regardless of whether or not your protagonist has overcome her internal flaw, you can’t go wrong by including a scene at or near the end of the script to demonstrate the final state of her character arc. Audiences love it when you wrap things up in a nice little bow for them like this, so it will only make your script more attractive if you give that to them.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #28: Describing exactly what characters look like

I have been very happily occupied this week with the San Francisco Giants’ run at the Texas Rangers in the World Series, but I’m taking a moment during game four (also while my Saints are taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers, BTW!) to type up this quick tip for you: Unless there is an important reason that we need to know exactly what a character looks like, don’t describe her appearance in detail.

Here are the three things that we need to know about every major character: name, gender and approximate age. We don’t need to know that a woman’s hair falls in wisps around her angelic face. We don’t need to know that a young boy’s freckles dot his face like all the constellations of the night sky. And we never, ever need to know that a woman in your script is beautiful or that a man is handsome – especially "ruggedly handsome." Unless you tell us otherwise, the actors are going to be preternaturally gorgeous.

There are two good reasons why you want to avoid telling us too much information about how your characters look. The most important is that the casting director is going to want to find the best and biggest star possible for each role. The more demands you make on how each character looks, the smaller the number of actors who will be able to play that role there will be. Of course, there are plenty of ways to change an actor’s appearance, but why place any unnecessary demands on the casting director? The second reason is that you always want your writing to be as economical as possible. If you want to make the people who read your script happy, then limit the amount of information about how your characters look to the bare minimum possible.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #27: No release of tension

Perhaps the single most important thing to know about screenwriting is that the actual product that screenwriters are selling is emotion. In order to give your audience their money’s worth, you need to make them experience as wide a range of emotions as possible. The way to do this is to build up tension, then release it, and then build it up again. The longer you can keep your audience on that kind of emotional roller coaster, the more satisfying their experience will be.

One script that I read started the protagonist down a dark, difficult path right at the beginning and then it only got worse and worse from there. The screenwriter never brought the protagonist back up from that low level, so the audience would have only experienced the emotion that took the protagonist from his beginning level at point A down to his concluding level at point B. If the writer had relieved some of that tension, then the audience would have experienced the full emotional range from point A down to point B and then back up to A, and down to B again, as many times as he liked. That’s a much greater emotional distance to travel than just a one-way trip.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Structure Analysis – Leonard Part 6

Yesterday, I put up a structural analysis of Diablo Cody's award-winning screenplay for "Juno." I will be writing this kind of analysis for good scripts (ones that have won awards or earned the highest box office amounts) and for bad scripts (ones that earned the least amount of money compared to their budget) to see what their structural differences are. Here's the structural analyses of a notorious flop, "Leonard Part 6," which is at the top (or bottom) of many worst-movie lists. While bad structure isn't the only thing wrong with this awful movie, its structural flaws are pretty glaring, as you'll see below.

Leonard Part 6
Written by Jonathan Reynolds, Story by Bill Cosby
Notorious flop from 1987
Budget: Unknown, but listed as “embarrassingly high”
Domestic Gross: $4.9 million


Genre – Action/Comedy
Number of pages – The screenplay is not available, but the movie without titles and credits runs for 78 minutes.

Protagonist – Leonard Parker
External goal – To stop Medusa from pouring her animal-controlling formula into the San Francisco Bay.
Internal need – To reconcile with his wife.

Note that a typical screenplay would show the protagonist trying to overcome his internal flaw in order to accomplish his external goal. Leonard doesn’t have an internal flaw in this script, so the story goes back and forth between him trying to stop Medusa from controlling the animals and him trying to win back his wife’s affections. These are both external goals. He clearly does have a flaw to overcome since his wife left him because in the backstory he slept with a 19-year-old girl, but they don’t address that issue in this story.

Also, a protagonist’s internal flaw would normally be in conflict with his external goal. Leonard’s ostensible internal story starts out being in conflict with his external goal because Leonard believes that he can’t win his wife back if he’s in the CIA. But then Leonard’s wife later tells him that she will get back together with him if he defeats Medusa, making the two goals interdependent.

I won’t be listing the external and internal structural points separately because the story doesn’t unfold that way. I’ll just list the significant events as they happen.


Statement of Theme

Small Catalyst (10%)
Page number – Page 9 (13%)
Agent Snyderburn asks Leonard to prevent Medusa Johnson from using her mind-controlled animals to take over San Francisco.

Big Catalyst (17%)
Page number – Page 17 (24%)
Medusa Jones kills a CIA agent by having her frogs pick up his car and hop it into the Bay.

Plot Point 1 (25%)
Page number – Page 30 (42%)
After Leonard's ex-wife rejects him, he decides to take the CIA job. Note that, at this point, Leonard’s goal is to defeat Medusa Jones by capturing her animal-controlling ball. But then later it becomes to destroy the vats of her formula.

Twist 1 (37.5%)
Page number – Page 32 (44%)
Leonard goes to a psychic who doesn’t speak English for advice and she gives him a pair of ballet slippers and a ring box that turns out to have a queen bee in it. No, I'm no making this up.

Mid-point (50%)
Page number – Page 38 (53%)
Leonard arrives at Medusa’s headquarters and steals the ball. While this is a significant event that occurs in the middle of the script, it is not a point of no return for Leonard.

Twist 2 (62.5%)
Page number – Page 52 (72%)
Leonard and his wife go to their daughter’s play and are surprised when she does a nude scene. This has nothing to do with anything else that happens in the story, so I have no idea what this scene is doing here.

Plot Point 2 (75%)
Page number – Page 55 (76%)
Medusa’s main henchman kidnaps Leonard’s ex-wife, but inexplicably leaves his daughter there.

Leonard achieves both his external goal by defeating Medusa and his internal goal by getting his wife back. Unfortunately, in the process, he rides an ostrich, gets lobsters to cut him free by pouring butter on his chains, and he destroys enormous vats of Medusa’s formula by dropping a few tablets of Alka-Seltzer in them. Sigh.

Even though a few of the structural elements happen at the right place and perform the correct function, many of them occur at very odd times and don’t perform any function that contributes to the central plot line. One of the biggest problems is that the second act is several pages shorter than the first act, even though it should be about twice as long.

There are so many things wrong with "Leonard Part 6" that it couldn’t help but be a box office flop. But it’s important to note that one of the primary elements that they got very wrong was the structure. Over the coming months, I’ll be looking at more good and bad screenplays to see how their structures affect their success.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Structure Analysis – Juno

This is my analysis of the structure of Diablo Cody's screenplay for "Juno." As you'll see, it fits standard screenplay structure (which I've outlined here) very nicely. Note that there are spoilers in this analysis, so read at your own risk!

Written by Diablo Cody
2008 Best Screenplay


Genre – Comedy / Drama
Number of pages – 101


Statement of Theme
The closest thing to this is when Leah tells Juno on page 7 that Juno loves Bleeker, but Juno says that it’s complicated and she’d rather not talk about it. Juno is afraid to admit that she has feelings for anyone because she believes that relationships never work out.

Small Catalyst (10%)
External (Page 10 – 10%)
Juno tells Bleeker that she’s pregnant. He says that it’s okay for her to have an abortion and abdicates all decision-making to her.
Internal (Page 7 – 7%)
Juno tells Leah about the moment that she decided to have sex with Bleeker.

Large catalyst (17%)
External (Page 19 – 19%)
Right as Juno is going in to have an abortion, Su-chin tells her that the baby already has fingernails. This freaks out Juno so much that she can’t go through with the abortion.
Internal (Page 14 – 14%)
Juno and Bleeker watch another couple fight. This seems to be what Juno expects in every relationship.

Plot Point 1 (25%)
External (Page 24 – 24%)
Juno finds a great couple to adopt her baby.
Internal (Page 25 – 25%)
Juno tells her parents that she’s pregnant. They’re supportive.

Twist 1 (37.5%)
External (Page 31 – 31%)
Juno and her dad go to negotiate the terms of the adoption with the Lorings. On page 3, they agree to a closed adoption and start getting the paperwork ready to sign.
Internal (Page 38 – 38%)
Juno sees that Mark has a Les Paul guitar. They discover that they have a lot in common and hit it off very well.

Mid-point (50%)
External (Page 56 – 55%)
Juno shows the ultrasound picture to Vanessa. The baby seems real to her for the first time. She also assures Mark and Vanessa that she won’t flake on them.
Internal (Page 51 – 50%)
Mark and Juno bond over his favorite song and his favorite horror movie director. Mark becomes more overt about his pursuit of Juno here.

Twist 2 (62.5%)
External (Page 69 – 68%)
Juno (and Leah) run into Vanessa at the mall. Vanessa touches Juno’s stomach and the baby kicks for her. Juno is impressed with how genuinely affectionate Vanessa is.
Internal (Page 63 – 62%)
Bleeker asks Juno if she wants to get back together once the pregnancy is finished, but Juno says that she didn’t know that they ever were together.

Plot Point 2 (75%)
External (Page 80 – 79%)
Mark tells Juno that he’s leaving Vanessa.
Internal (Page 74 – 73%)
Juno and Bleeker fight about him asking Katrina De Voort to the prom, even though Juno has made it clear that she doesn’t even want to go to prom.

Juno decides to go through with the adoption with just Vanessa, and Vanessa agrees.
Juno realizes that she really is in love with Bleeker, so she finally tells him so. After she has the baby they get the band back together and sing the cutest song ever. She accomplishes both her external goal and her internal one for a feel-good Hollywood ending.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Screenplay Structure

I'm going to be posting some structural analyses of screenplays here, so I wanted to put up this outline of the structure points that I will be looking for in my evaluations. The structural points below don’t need to happen at an exact page number, but just at an approximate percentage point in the script. All of these structural points should relate specifically to the protagonist’s pursuit of his external goal. An accompanying event in the protagonist’s efforts to overcome his internal flaw should happen shortly before or after each one of the structural points below.

Structure Outline

Statement of Theme
In the first few pages of your screenplay, one of the characters should state the story’s theme out loud. For example, in the setup for “When Harry Met Sally,” Billy Crystal tells Meg Ryan that it’s not possible for men and women to be just friends because the sex always gets in the way. This raises the question that the characters will be exploring throughout the rest of the story. Every screenplay must have a single, specific theme or question that it is investigating, and then everything that happens in the script must pertain directly to that central theme or question. Not all screenplays state the script out loud, but it’s a good thing to do because it makes the story that much clearer for your audience.

Setup – First 10%
The opening 10% of your script should establish who the protagonist is, as well as who the other major characters are and what kind of environment the protagonist lives in. This part of the script should also demonstrate why the protagonist is unhappy in this environment so that the audience will understand why he will want to make a change.

Small Catalyst – 10%
At about the 10% point in the script, the first catalyst should occur. This catalyst should happen to the protagonist, and not be an action that the protagonist takes. This catalyst should be the first thing in the script that propels the protagonist toward the pursuit of his external goal, and should also give him a glimpse of who he could become if he were to overcome his internal flaw.

Large Catalyst – 17%
At about the 17% point (roughly halfway between the small catalyst and the first plot point) an even more significant catalyst should happen to the protagonist. Along with the first catalyst, this larger event should lead the protagonist inevitably toward the pursuit of his external goal, which will begin at plot point one.

Plot Point 1 – 25%
At the 25% point of the script, the protagonist must begin the pursuit of his external goal. He doesn’t have to be fully committed to accomplishing his external goal yet, but he must now be on a clear path toward the pursuit of his external goal. Often, the location will change at this point to visually represent the protagonist leaving the comfort of his ordinary world for the dangers of this new extraordinary world. It is also at this point where the protagonist begins to try living the kind of life that could truly make him happy, though he’s not very good at it yet. Plot Point One marks the beginning of Act Two.

Pinch One – 37.5% (also called a “twist” or “complication”)
In between the first plot point and the mid-point, a major plot event should occur that complicates the protagonist’s pursuit of his external goal. This event often reveals new information to the protagonist that will cause him to go in a new direction. Note that every plot event that occurs in the script should provide a more significant obstacle than the last so that the audience can see a clear arc in the development of the protagonist’s character.

Mid-point – 50%
The mid-point of a screenplay is called the point of no return (or sometimes the false point of no return). Something should happen here to force the protagonist to commit 100% to accomplishing his external goal. Often at this point, the protagonist and antagonist will change roles so that the character who was more passive now becomes the aggressor.

Pinch Two – 62.5%
Halfway between the mid-point and the second plot point should be a major plot event that pushes the protagonist in a new direction, usually because of the revelation of new information. Also, if your protagonist has a mentor who is helping him to overcome his internal flaw, that character usually dies at the end of this section of the script, or perhaps in the next section.

Plot Point 2 – 75%
At the second plot point, the worst thing that could possibly occur in the protagonist’s pursuit of his external goal should happen. This usually happens because the antagonist exposes the protagonist’s internal flaw for the world to see. It should appear at this point that the antagonist has won the battle and that it is now impossible for the protagonist to overcome his internal flaw and achieve his external goal. This point marks the end of Act 2.

Buildup to Resolution
The protagonist returns to his ordinary world at this point, but he should now be so changed by everything that he has gone through that he can no longer be satisfied living the way he did before. The protagonist will summon all of his internal resources, often following a visit to a mentor or oracle, and make one final heroic push to accomplish his external goal. This is the real point of no return.

The Ending
There are four possible ways that a screenplay can end:

1. Protagonist overcomes internal flaw, but doesn’t accomplish external goal – This is an emotionally satisfying ending because it shows that the protagonist has realized that fixing his internal flaw, rather than achieving his external goal, is the thing that will make him truly happy. It also shows how much the protagonist is willing to sacrifice in order to be happy.
(Avatar, Little Miss Sunshine, Milk, Rain Man, E.T., Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz)

2. Accomplish external goal, don’t overcome internal flaw – This is a cautionary tale because the hero never does realize that overcoming his internal flaw is the only thing that will make him truly happy. He goes on blindly pursuing his external goal, mistakenly believing that it is the one thing that will make him happy. At the end of this kind of script, it should be obvious that the protagonist is still unhappy.
(The Hurt Locker, Memento, There Will Be Blood, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now)

3. Fail at external goal and overcoming internal flaw – This is a tragedy.
(A Serious Man, Romeo and Juliet, Brokeback Mountain, Fargo, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)

4. Succeed at external goal and at overcoming internal flaw – This is a typical Hollywood movie.
(Slumdog Millionaire, Precious, Juno, Star Wars, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting)

The Aftermath
It’s usually a good idea to include a scene at the end of the script to show how the protagonist has grown since the beginning of your story. A common way to do this is to repeat a scene from the beginning of the story, which the protagonist didn’t handle well, but now he does handle it well because of the things that he has learned since that point.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #26: Coincidences

Nothing makes an audience groan like a coincidence that doesn’t have a believable explanation. Except maybe for the Mr. Creosote scene in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life.” That was nasty.

In one script that I read, a woman who grew up believing that she was an orphan, found out that her mother might actually still be alive. She got an old picture of her mother and set out to try to find her. One night, she was talking with a friend of hers at a bar and a man approached them. The man said that he was waiting for a blind date and asked if it happened to be one of them. It turned out that he was in the wrong bar altogether, so he decided to head home. Before leaving, the woman told him that she was looking for her mother and showed him the picture of her. You guessed it – it turns out that the woman in the picture was his mother too. If that had happened in an actual movie, the audience would have started hurling their Jujubes at the screen.

There’s no way that an audience will buy that kind of coincidence. There’s actually no way that an audience will buy any kind of coincidence, but especially not one that is several layers deep like that. The problem with coincidences like this is that they are just a convenient (and lazy) way to move the action in the direction that the author wants it to go. The author’s job is to make everything in the story both dramatic and believable, so you will need to present everything in your script in a way that the audience will believe.

If you ever have a coincidence or some other piece of not-quite-believable information in your script, then you either need to rewrite that section to present the information in a believable way or you at least need to set up the coincidence in advance. For example, let’s say that you want to write about a woman is looking for her mother, and you want the mother’s son to be living in the same general neighborhood. You could set up the fact that they live in the same neighborhood by showing us in advance that the mother chose an adoptive family for her daughter that lived nearby so that she could secretly keep an eye on her. Then the daughter could place an ad in the Village Voice looking for anyone who knows that woman, which the man could respond to. That’s believable. Not terribly dramatic yet, but believable.

If you really want to add an element of humor, the man could also reply to an ad from the singles classifieds at the same time, which he then gets mixed up, so he goes to the meeting with the protagonist thinking that it’s a date. But now we’re getting into unbelievable territory again, so it would be better to keep it simple.

The main point is that you need to ensure that every part of your story is believable or that you at least set up any questionable story elements in advance. Even then, you still need that story element to be believable, but audiences can be pretty forgiving when you set up something like this for them.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #25: Overly futuristic descriptions

Yesterday, I wrote about the problem of not putting enough imagination into describing futuristic environments. However, you should also be careful not to do the opposite by overestimating how much things will change in the future – especially in the near future. The danger is that we could raise an entire generation of people who will grow up expecting to live in chrome housing pods on the moon and traveling exclusively by or jetpack. If my childhood movie recollections are correct, we should have all been doing that for at least 20 years now.

One movie that I believe overestimates some futuristic elements is “Minority Report” (based on the short story by Philip K. Dick and written by Scott Frank), which gets so many things right that the things it gets wrong really stick out by comparison. The portrayal of touch-screen / spatial recognition computers was uncanny, as was the prediction of personalized advertising that follows you everywhere. But the prediction that our entire highway infrastructure would be replaced by such a fast-paced, computer-driven system in just 52 years seems like quite a stretch based on not only the amount of time it would take to complete that much work, but also how long it would take for that kind of legislation to pass through the Senate. Seriously, have you watched C-SPAN lately?

The problem is that Mr. Dick wrote this short story in 1956, so it would have seemed perfectly reasonable that such changes could occur in 100 years. But since that setting was only 52 years away from the movie’s release, it would have been better to tone down the level of infrastructure development or to move the date a bit farther into the future. It sucks to alter the original author’s work so significantly, but it sucks even more to release a movie with glaring problems like this. Also, even if one does buy the premise that genetically-altered people will be able to predict the future, it still seems far-fetched that we would be able to redesign our criminal justice system in just five decades to be based on three bald people floating in a tub.

Another good example of overestimating futuristic changes is from the movie “The Postman,” though the error this time was in guessing how much worse things would get after some sort of apocalypse occurs. The movie (based on the novel by David Brin and written by Academy Award winner Eric Roth) was set in 2013 and was released in 1997. Despite being set only 16 years in the future, the entire country was reduced to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Whatever bombs our unseen enemies dropped on us apparently had road-dissolving properties because the only way to travel was by horse on dusty trails. Government no longer exists so people have holed up into walled hamlets or pseudo-military enclaves headed by evil warlords. And despite the fact that everyone over the age of 16 would have been born before the apocalypse, many adults have weird names like “General Bethlehem” and “Ford Lincoln Mercury.” People even wear animal pelts and talk like cavemen at times, describing the period before the apocalypse (waaaay back to almost 16 years ago) as the period before the “great lung” stopped breathing. Ugh.

On the bright side, an excellent example of a writer not overdoing his futuristic environment can be found in George Lucas’s “Star Wars.” The sci-fi movies that Mr. Lucas would have seen while growing up included sets made primarily out of chrome, with every single prop looking shiny and new. He thought that if people drove beat-up old cars today, then surely people would be piloting beat-up old spaceships in the future. So he made the Millennium Falcon, a complete clunker of a spaceship, for smuggler Han Solo. That hyperdrive-challenged bucket of bolts fits Han’s personality perfectly and provides not only a believable prop, but also a reliable source of comic relief.

So combine yesterday’s post with this one and my advice is to write the type of futuristic environment that Goldilocks would choose: not too far-fetched, but also not too similar to what we have today. It helps to take the number of years in the future that you will be writing about, and then look back at the technology that people were using that many years ago. Think about the technological breakthroughs that have affected our lives most significantly since then and what driving forces brought them about, then apply that same thought pattern to how and why your own story’s technology will evolve. And if that doesn’t work, go ask a nerd. They know everything.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #24: Bad futuristic descriptions

One of the scripts that I've written coverage for was set 130 years in the future, so I was expecting to see imaginative descriptions of what life would be like in the mid-22nd century. However, the screenplay opened with the protagonist watching TV on his couch and then getting up to go answer his phone, which was ringing in the next room. Sigh.

Take a minute and think about what life was like 130 years ago, way back in the 1880s. Are we doing anything the same way that people did back then? Are we still cranking up our gramophones to listen to wax cylinder impressions of Tchaikovsky’s latest hits? Are those newfangled electric lamps available outside of Manhattan yet? Do people still ride their horses into town for provisions or take overnight steam train rides to neighboring states? Does your telephone number begin with the word “Klondike?” Do people still use open forums to belabor their points ad nauseum? Okay, maybe that one is still happening, but modern technology allows me to do it in a much more efficient way now.

The bad news is that it’s not easy to create a realistic futuristic world because you need to make believable predictions about how technologies will develop and evolve over time. That takes a lot of thought and imagination. The good news is that screenwriters get paid to daydream! You can put as much time and effort as you like into imagining how people will communicate in the future, or how they will be entertained, or how they will get around. (In tachyon-powered Segways – Duh!) Whatever your setting and whatever time period you choose, just be sure to give plenty of thought to what that environment would reasonably look like and what cool new toys your characters will have to play with. Fun!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #23: Unexploded bombs

I once read a script that included a scene, which began with a man threatening the protagonist with a bomb. Then the attention shifted to another character and ended without ever mentioning the bomb again. This is one of those things that makes people go, “Huh?!?” If you show the audience a bomb in your story, then we’d better see one of three things happening pretty soon:

1.     The hero going through extraordinary efforts to stop the bomb from exploding.
2.     Shrapnel flying through the hero or the people he cares about.
3.     Both.

Once you introduce any kind of threat to your hero, you then need to generate the most tension and drama out of that threat as you can. If a bad guy has a gun, then the hero should be dodging bullets soon. Alternatively, if your hero has a fear of heights, then his infant son should be trapped on top of some shaky scaffolding at the first possible opportunity. Or something like that.

The point, of course, is that you should never show the audience something that poses a danger to your hero or anyone he cares about, without then making at least some use out of that threat of danger. Ideally, you will use this threat to make the audience pee its pants, but at the very least make them sweat a little. Just force some kind of bodily fluid out of your audience and you will have done your job.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #22: Transitions

You've probably seen scripts that have notes down the right side of the page to describe what the transitions between the scenes will look like. These include "CUT TO:" or "DISSOLVE TO:" or the ever-popular "SMASH CUT TO:" and "MATCH CUT TO:". Those last two create a specific visual effect, so many authors like to use them to make their imagery more vivid. I know one outstanding screenwriting teacher / screenwriter who insists that his students write transitions in their scripts, but he’s the only one that I know of and I have no idea why he teaches this. In my opinion, you never need to include any transition words in a spec script.

The first problem with transitions is that they constitute yet another attempt to direct the filming of the story, which is the director’s job. Your job is only to tell a dramatic story with compelling characters, and those rarely include the words “dissolve to.” The other problem is that you want to make your script as brief and active as possible, so cutting out unnecessary elements like transitions can only help you accomplish that goal. Your shooting script can include cool visual elements like transitions, but for your spec script, just stick to telling the story.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #21: Dialogue on the phone

Like I said in the last post on overhearing, the best way for drama to play out is face-to-face. When characters tell each other critical information or uncomfortable truths, then we get to see how they react to each other. That’s why it’s also better to avoid having your characters talk to each other on the phone. When they exchange information on the phone, you lose the added element of interpersonal reactions and the ability for them to take actions that affect each other. For example, here’s how a conversation might play out over the phone:


Mary, I’m so glad I caught you.

What’s wrong, Arthur?

I just think it would be best for us
to see other people.

What? How could you tell me this over
the phone, you coward?

Doesn’t that actually seem cowardly of Arthur to say something like this to Mary on the phone? Almost like he is trying to avoid drama or any negative reaction? Since you want to maximize the drama in your script, it would be better to write that interaction something like this:


What’s wrong, Arthur? Why did you need
to talk with me right away?

I just think we should see other people.

You call me in the middle of the day, ask
to leave work and drive forty-five minutes
to your house so that you can break up
with me?

There’s no need to make a scene.

A scene? In your apartment?

Mary walks to the fireplace and picks up a picture of them from the mantle.

Why would I make a scene?

Mary pushes the picture against the edge of the mantle until it cracks in half.

You’re overreacting, Mary.

Mary takes a piece of the broken glass and throws the rest of the picture into the fire.

This isn’t an overreaction at all, Arthur.
An overreaction would be if I were to
create a distraction and then use that
momentary confusion to hurt someone.

Mary takes another picture off the mantle and hurls it at Arthur’s big-screen TV.

Arthur screams and runs to his precious TV, kneeling in front of it.

You bitch! Why would you--

Mary slips up behind Arthur and slits his throat with the piece glass.

See? Now you’re ready to send this script to Disney! The point is that Mary can do anything to Arthur when they’re standing in the same room together, and he can also do anything to her. Mary can look at his face and see if he’s serious. She can react violently and so can he. Or she could do something completely unexpected. The possibilities are limitless. When your characters are on the phone, the possibilities are limited at best. Unless you invent a cool new iPhone app that can make the other person's phone explode in his hand. Yeah, that would be cool.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #20: Overhearing

One of the biggest challenges in writing a screenplay is how to relay important information to the audience and among your characters in a believable way. When confronted with this challenge, I frequently see screenwriters take the easy way out by just employing some convenient device instead of coming up with a scene that imparts the information in a way that is dramatic and works well for the story.

One of these convenient devices that I see far too often is when one character overhears another person saying something important. How many times have you actually ever overheard something in your life and, of those times, how often was it something that changed your life? Of course, this happens every once in awhile, but only about 1/1000th as often as it happens in screenplays.

Even if overhearing critical information were commonplace in reality, you still wouldn’t want to do that in your script because drama is always best when it plays out face-to-face. When your characters actually interact with each other, we get to see the drama unfold between them, not to mention the consequences that the first character would face for sharing such critical information with the person who can use it the most. That’s all really good stuff to put in a screenplay – much better than showing one character leaning against a doorway as another one prattles on carelessly about some sensitive topic. If you don’t show the interaction between these two characters, you are robbing your audience of a dramatic interaction at a crucial point in your script. If you have any overhearing in your script, try to re-imagine that scene as taking place face-to-face and you’ll see just how much drama that can add to your story.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #19: Under-descriptions

In a previous post, I ranted about the common problem of overwriting screenplay descriptions. In fact, I have never read a single script that didn’t contain too much description – usually quite a bit too much. However, I sometimes see the opposite problem, which is when a writer describes a complex series of actions in far too few words.

For example, I read a script not long ago that included a dramatic scene in which the protagonist is finally getting his big chance to face off against his antagonist in a fencing duel to the death. Rather than writing out what happens so that the reader can get a clear picture of the action, the author wrote, “There’s an epic swordfight. Charles wins.” I can guarantee you that’s not how William Goldman described the swordfight in “The Princess Bride” and that Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. never had to just wing it when he faced off with a bad guy.

This is a great place to build up lots of tension and to show the ebb and flow of the dramatic interaction between these two characters, not just to let a fight choreographer decide everything that will happen. You still need to keep the descriptions brief and active, but you must give the reader an idea of how that fight will unfold. One good way to do this is through a series of shots that you list one after another with a dash in front of each of them. Here’s an abbreviated example:

-       Charles and Roger draw their swords and lock eyes, circling left, then right.
-       Roger thrusts his sword at Charles’ chest. Charles parries and spins left.
-       Charles spins behind Roger and swings for his back. Roger ducks and rolls away.
-       Still crouching, Roger swings for Charles’ legs. Charles leaps over the sword and chops downward, burying his sword in Roger’s left shoulder.

This description should give a clear idea of the flow of the action, though an actual blow-by-blow of this kind of fight would go on longer than this because this is the big showdown, which could last for several minutes. If you want to write action effectively, watch some good fight scenes that are similar to how you would like yours to go and then write out brief, staccato descriptions of the action they contain. You don’t need every detail, just the main points. Better yet, read the screenplay of that movie and see exactly how the author described the action. Then you can emulate the style of those descriptions, while creating your own unique spin on the kind of fight that you want your characters to have.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #18: There / their / they're

The last few posts have been about fairly involved topics, so here's a simpler one: Don't make basic grammar mistakes. Here are the ones that I see all the time:

1. There / their / they're

- There: Indicates a location or the presence of something. "There are some excellent new restaurants downtown."

- Their: Third-person plural possessive. "I like their new puppy."

- They're: Contraction for "they are." "They're going to meet us at the game."

2. It's / its

- It's: Contraction for "it is." "It's starting to rain."

- Its: Possessive form of "it." "The thing I like most about this car is its gas mileage."

3. Lose / Loose

- Lose: To fail to win. "John practiced hard every day because he didn't want to lose another race."

- Loose: Not tight or not bound together. "I wear a medium size shirt, so this large one is too loose on me." Hey, it could be true!

4. You / your / you're

- You: Second-person pronoun, both singular and plural. Unless you live in the South, in which case "y'all" or "all y'all" would be the plural version. "You shouldn't be offended by this because I'm originally from New Orleans."

- Your: Second-person singular or plural possessive. See above for the "y'all's" and "all y'all's" exceptions. "Your excuse about being from New Orleans is pretty lame."

- You're: Contraction for "you are." "You're kidding yourself if you think that people from the South won't be offended by this post."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #17: No antagonist

I’m frequently surprised when reading scripts to find that there is no antagonist in the story at all. Sometimes I read scripts where the antagonist role is divided among multiple characters who cause various problems for the protagonist. The best rule to follow is that there should be a single character whose primary (if not sole) function in your screenplay is to prevent the protagonist from accomplishing his external goal. First I’ll tell you who the antagonist should be, then I’ll tell you why there should be a single antagonist, and finally I’ll tell you how the antagonist should stop the protagonist from achieving his external goal. Don’t you love it when advice gets this specific?

So who should your antagonist be? First, he should be demonstrably more powerful than your protagonist. If you put the two of them into a room together, the audience should have no doubt that the antagonist would kick the protagonist’s butt ten times out of ten. Also, do you remember how I wrote in a previous post that your protagonist must have an internal flaw that makes his external goal particularly difficult for him to achieve? Your antagonist should have the most intense possible version of that same flaw and he should revel in it. A great example of this is in “The Dark Knight.” Batman is an outsider who doesn’t fit into normal society, and who is rejected by society despite his efforts to help people. By contrast, The Joker is a big ol’ freak who takes full advantage of his outsider status to do whatever he wants. Plus, his willingness to ignore rules and not care whom he hurts makes him much more dangerous that Batman.

Next, why should there be just one antagonist? A good screenplay is about a protagonist’s attempts to overcome his internal flaw in order to accomplish his external goal. The best way to visually represent whether or not your protagonist succeeds at these attempts is to have him do battle with a single, powerful character who perfectly embodies his internal flaw and whose sole purpose in life is to stop your protagonist from achieving his external goal. If your protagonist defeats that kind of antagonist, the audience will know without any doubt that he has grown dramatically since the beginning of the story. You can –and should– have many characters who cause problems for your protagonist, but make sure that there is a single antagonist who is in charge of stopping his external goal.

Now I’m going to contradict myself by saying that it’s possible, and sometimes even preferable to have more than one antagonist. Lemme ‘splain. As I said, there should be someone in your story who opposes your protagonist’s attempts to achieve his external goal, but there should also be someone who opposes his attempts to overcome his internal flaw. It’s nice and simple when that’s the same person, but it’s often two different people. If your primary antagonist isn’t opposed to your protagonist’s internal flaw, then you need to have a separate internal antagonist whose job is to prevent your protagonist from overcoming his internal flaw. When your protagonist defeats that character, then the audience will know that he has overcome his flaw and is well on his way to achieving his external goal, if that’s how you would like your story to end.

In “Juno,” both the external and internal antagonists are portrayed in the single character of Mark Loring, though Bleeker is also a bit of an internal antagonist/punching bag as well. In “Fargo,” Jerry Lundegaard’s external antagonist is chief of police Marge Gunderson, and his internal antagonist is his father-in-law, Wade Gustafson. When Jerry fails to defeat his internal antagonist, we know that he’s in serious trouble, which happens immediately when Carl gets away with all of the money. It’s fine either to have one antagonist or to have separate external and internal antagonists, as long as you have somebody opposing your protagonist’s attempts to accomplish his external goal and to overcome his internal flaw.

So now that you know who your antagonist should be, let’s talk about how he should defeat your protagonist (which should happen at the end of Act Two and possibly again at the end of your story). The first big thing that your antagonist should do at the end of Act Two is to expose your protagonist’s internal flaw for the whole world to see, or at least to the person that the protagonist has been hiding it from – probably a love interest, but you can make it anyone you like as long as the effect on your protagonist is devastating. Then you need to think of the worst possible thing that could happen in the protagonist’s pursuit of his external goal, and have your antagonist do that. In “Juno,” (Spoiler alert!) this happens when Mark announces that he is going to leave Vanessa, thus making it impossible for Juno to achieve her goal of finding a great couple to adopt her baby. This event, along with the fight that Juno has with Bleeker, causes her crisis of faith in humanity, so she has to consult with her father/internal mentor in order to figure out how to proceed. Once Juno has rejected Mark, thus removing him from the picture, she is able to figure out the right way to proceed with her external and internal problems.

The bottom line is that you must must must have a single person whose primary job is to stop your protagonist from achieving his external goal, and then either that person or another person needs to oppose your protagonist’s attempts to overcome his internal flaw. There’s no rule about when the antagonist should first appear in your script, but I think it’s best to introduce him in the first act. I’ve seen it happen at the first plot point, as it does in “Fargo,” and sometimes even as late as the mid-point, but the earlier that the antagonist shows up in your script, the sooner he can start making your protagonist’s life miserable. Happy antagonizing!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

SFFS Pitch Perfect

Many screenwriters find pitching their scripts to be particularly challenging. I certainly have quite a bit more experience writing stories than pitching them, so I went to last night's San Francisco Film Society pitching seminar called Pitch Perfect to learn more about this. The event was hosted by Michele Turnure-Salleo and Michael Behrens and featured panelists Jennifer ChaikenMegan GelsteinJudith Helfland and Jacob Kornbluth.
I wanted to share the notes that I took during this event for those who weren't able to attend, and to encourage all of you who live in the Bay Area to attend future SFFS events. This event was targeted more to documentary film makers, but most of the advice seemed applicable to all kinds of pitches. Here are the notes that I took, in no particular order:
- Know as much as possible about the company and the individuals that you're pitching to. Know exactly why they are the best people to be listening to your pitch and then tailor your pitch specifically to them. What have they produced that made you want to talk to them and how is your story similar, but different?
- Keep your pitches brief and don't give away everything about the story in the pitch. Of course this doesn't mean that you should conclude your pitch with a cheesy "will he succeed?" ending.
- End your sentences with downward intonation as if you are making a definitive statement. Don't end with upward intonation as if you are asking a question.
- Don't think of the pitch as a "pitching" but as "storying." Parents don't pitch their children to sleep, they tell them stories.
- A good pitch tells who the hero is and why he is sympathetic, what he is trying to accomplish, what obstacles are in his way, and approximately three things that he does to accomplish his goal. Show how hte hero goes through a "transformation machine" and comes out changed on the other side.
- Be passionate but not aggressive.
- Don't use a creepy announcer voice when giving a pitch. A lot of people do that for some reason.
- Pitches are mainly about the first act, setting up the big questions and then answering them only if they ask. You can release more information later as a reason to follow up with them.
- It's okay to use pictures, tchotchkes, or other tangibles to help give people a good visual image of your story.
- Of course, you should practice your pitch thoroughly, but also decide which other pitches you will give (and will not give) if they ask you what else you've written, then practice those as well.
- Tell why this story is personal to you and why you have special access to the world that you're describing.
- Be able to answer these questions: Why you? Why this story? Why now?
- Don't try to sound lofty or formal. Be personal. You want them to like you as well as your story.
- Leaving a pitch feels in some ways like the end of a date. Try treating it like a (non-romantic) date and it might go better.
- If they schedule a lunch meeting with you, then they are probably already interested in your story and just want to know if they are comfortable with you as a person. Treat this meeting in particular like a date and also as an interview for you to figure out if you will be comfortable working with them.
Finally, I want to pass along one thing that I have learned while giving pitches. You know how studios tend to make multiple trailers for each of their movies? Frequently, they produce one trailer for the action story, one for the romantic story, and one for the comedy story. Obviously, these vary depending on the type of movie. The point is that they want their story to appeal to as wide of a demographic as possible, so they make multiple trailers to "pitch" their story to multiple demographic groups. Likewise, you should consider creating multiple pitches for your story that will appeal to multiple demographic groups.
I like to think of myself as a relatively PC person, but what I'm about to say can only be described as sexist. When I was at a big pitchfest with multiple "pitchees" sitting at tables in a big room, I discovered a general trend in the kind of stories that these people wanted to hear. In general, the men wanted to hear the action story (or 'A' story) and the women wanted to hear the romantic / internal story (or 'B' story). See, I told you it was sexist. In fact, in the last pitchfest that I went to, this was true 100% of the time. Of course that was not a statistically significant study group, but I have found this to be the case far more often than not. The bottom line is that it's a good idea to be prepared to talk about both your 'A' story and your 'B' story in detail so that you are ready when people ask you to tell them more about whichever plot line interests them the most. </sexism>

Screenwriting Mistake #17: Deus Ex Machina

For anyone who skipped that day in Latin class, this phrase means “God out of the Machine.” In screenwriting, it’s a pejorative term that describes when you get your protagonist into a big jam and then don’t know how he can escape, so you bail him out with some convenient contrivance, such as an actual act of God, or the help of some other character who shows up out of the blue, or the sudden introduction of a new ability or some other unexpected bit of perfectly-timed information, or the hero’s sudden realization that, “Hey, someone must have accidentally dropped a gun in my jacket pocket, so I’ll just use that to shoot the bad guy and get away!” If you do that, Robert McKee will find you and will beat you over the head with a lead pipe that he will just happen to find lying at his feet as he sneaks up behind you while you are reading a screenwriting blog.
Remember in “The Abyss” when Ed Harris makes that deep dive, knowing that there will not be enough time for him to make it back up to the surface alive, but then the underwater alien dudes have inexplicably built some kind of glowing dome on the sea floor that contains breathable oxygen, even though they don’t need to breathe oxygen themselves? Yeah, that’s a good example. Or how about at the end of “Independence Day” when Jeff Goldblum somehow manages to upload a computer virus to the alien ship that disables their defense systems? How nice of the aliens to give him their IP address and what luck that they happened to be running Windows 95 (even though Goldblum used his handy Macintosh PowerBook to upload the virus remotely). In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” it’s actually God who kills the bad guys when they open the Ark, which makes things much easier for smarmy movie critics like me who are just waiting for this kind of thing to happen.
The good news is that problems like these are easy to avoid. Audiences will gladly forgive you for instilling your hero with some extreme ability or even a superhuman power, as long as you set it up in advance. If there are creatures living in a big oxygen-filled dome at the bottom of the sea, then you could show a small version of that kind of dome at the beginning, or even have a crazy sailor talk about falling overboard and then breathing from a glowing bowl of oxygen until he reached the surface. If Jeff Goldblum needs to send a virus to the alien computers, then you could set that up by having the aliens use a technology that we haven’t yet mastered on earth –but which Goldblum can then figure out– to send a virus to our own computers at the Pentagon. At least in “Raiders,” they set up the Ark killing people by letting us know beforehand that Indy believed in that story.
There are plenty of great examples in movies of how to set up this kind of thing so that the audience won’t groan when the hero miraculously escapes at the end. Just about every movie in the James Bond series begins with Q showing James some awesome new weapons, and then ends with James using one of those awesome new weapons to get out of an impossible situation. The guys in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” were rescued by a catastrophic flood, but we don’t mind because the wise man foretold this. And we knew that Joaquin Phoenix would be able to repel an alien invasion with a baseball bat because his dead mother told him to “swing away.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist sneaking in just one sarcastic example there. But I know that my audience will accept this because I set it up earlier by describing myself as “smarmy.”

Screenwriting Mistake #16: Following trends

An almost certain way to waste several months of your life is to try to write a screenplay about a topic or style that is currently hot in Hollywood. Another is to try to train your cat to pee in the toilet, but let’s focus on the first one for now. There’s a simple reason why following trends is a bad idea – it takes a minimum of two years from the time a script is completed until that movie comes out in theaters. And that’s only if everything goes perfectly. I’ve read estimates of the average time that it takes from completed script to movie premiere ranging from four to seven years. Even if everything does go perfectly, by the time your screenplay is released as a movie, that trend will have run its course. It would actually be a liability at that point to release a movie that is based on a trend that is now passé.
Can you imagine what the reaction would be if you were to sit down at a table full of studio execs tomorrow morning and tell them that you have a great new script about a vampire and a werewolf fighting over a high school girl? First of all, does statutory rape not apply to vampires? Seriously, Edward, date someone your own age, or at least someone who could be older than your great-granddaughter. But even though the “Twilight” movies have made a ton of money, no studio would try to re-create that story right now, except as a ridiculous satire like “Vampires Suck.”
This doesn’t mean that studios don’t want to capitalize on current trends, because they absolutely do when there’s money to be made. After “Pulp Fiction” and “Memento,” all of Hollywood wanted to find another great script that ran in non-chronological order. But once studios start looking for a certain kind of script, it’s already too late for you to write it, so there’s no need for you to try and hop on that kind of bandwagon.
If you really do want to try to jump on the next big trend, there are three ways that you can do this:
  1. Predict the next craze. Popular fads, movies and TV shows tend to come back around after a generation, which is why there have been so many attempts to re-create TV shows and movies from the 80s recently. This means that the 90s can’t be far behind, especially since the time between fads is only getting shorter. Write a script about grunge rockers or negotiate the rights to the Tamagochi story. How about researching the kinds of movies that were popular after the last big recession and then writing one of those now so that you will be ready when this one ends? There’s no guarantee that anyone will want your script when the next big trend begins but at least you’ll be prepared.
  2. Create the next craze. Have you ever heard of anything stupider than “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” Seriously, how hard can this be? Okay, it actually is pretty hard, but studios are always looking for the next big thing, so it might as well be written by you.
  3. Write a ton of scripts. The more entertaining, well constructed screenplays you have ready to send out at a moment’s notice, the likelier you will be to have one that is perfect for the next big trend.

Screenwriting Mistake #15: No internal flaw

You know that every protagonist should have a clear external goal that he is trying to achieve beginning at the first plot point of your script. But another thing that every protagonist needs is a significant internal problem that makes his external goal particularly difficult to achieve. This problem should be a part of his core personality, or something that he was born with, or simply who he is as a person.
For example, in the movie “Milk,” Harvey Milk’s internal problem that makes his goal of winning a City Supervisor election particularly difficult is the fact that he is gay. In the 1970s, when this story took place, no openly gay person had ever been elected to that high of a public office, so Harvey’s sexual preference was going to make things very hard for him. (I, um, can’t believe I just wrote that.) Even better, this internal “problem” is an intrinsic and immutable part of who Harvey is as a person, so there is nothing he can do to change it (unless you ask the members of the Westboro Baptist Church). This kind of internal conflict makes for some seriously great drama, as you can see in this extraordinary movie.
Here are more examples of how internal flaws and external goals have come into conflict in some great movies:
- In “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone’s singular goal is to avoid going into his family business, but his internal problem is that he is the only member of this family who could possibly be any good at it. His sister, Connie, is ineligible because she’s not a man. (Hey, now there’s a great internal problem – a woman who wants to be the next head of a Mafia family. Trademarked! Don’t even try to write a screenplay about that, because I called dibs!) Sonny can’t do it because he’s way too hot-headed. And don’t even try to convince me that Fredo could have done it. Puh-lease. No, Michael is the only one capable of running the family business, so he either comes on board or the business (and quite possibly the family) will die.
- In “Fargo,” Jerry Lundegaard needs to raise $1 million immediately, so he hatches a plan to have his wife kidnapped in order to get her rich father to pay the ransom. But the problem with this plan is that Jerry is utterly inept at crime. He is a quintessential Midwestern everyman, so masterminding a crime is as foreign to his nature as eating tofu or rooting against the Packers. His inherent inability to think and act like a criminal makes it impossible for him to successfully pull off a crime of any magnitude, let alone one this dangerous and complicated.
- In “Little Miss Sunshine,” six-year-old Olive wants nothing more than to go to California so that she can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Since Olive is too young to have a personality flaw like Jerry Lundegaard's, her inherent flaw must be something else that she was born with. In this case, it’s her family. I mean, have you seen this freak show? Good luck trying to get that entire crew to California in an ancient VW minibus without a thousand things going wrong. The second they open their mouths (or refuse to open it, in one case), the audience knows that it will be a miracle if they all survive this trip intact.
Good screenplays are loaded with conflict and there’s no better conflict than an internal flaw that stands directly between your protagonist and his path to true happiness. If you pit your protagonist’s external goal against a strong internal flaw, you are guaranteed to have a great source of conflict throughout your entire script.

Screenwriting Mistake #14: Goal not primal enough

Another issue that I frequently see in screenplays is that the protagonist’s goal doesn't have enough consequences. For example, if a movie is about a college freshman who must get to the school’s registration building by 3:00 or risk having to take her Intro to Biology class next semester, that’s not going to create a lot of sympathy in your audience. Why would anyone care whether or not she makes it to her registration on time? However, if an escaped mental patient has told her that she has to arrive at the registration building by 3:00 or he’s going to kill her entire family, then the audience will root for her to succeed. Though I’m not sure why an escaped mental patient would care about something like that. Give me some time – I’m still working out the details.
In order for stories to have universal appeal, the protagonist must be in a struggle that has primal consequences. This means that failure should result in the removal of, or inability to acquire, a basic biological need. There are many definitions of what our basic human needs are, but they can essentially be boiled down to:
  1. Safety – shelter, sustenance, financial security, and in the most extreme possibility, life or death
  2. Reproduction – finding a mate, becoming pregnant or making someone pregnant (or adopting), protecting the children that you already have
  3. Identity – finding out who you are or how you became the way that you are, confirming your sanity or lack thereof
Those issues are certainly worth fighting for, and the specific versions of them that you could include in your screenplay are limited only by your creativity. Would you rather watch a movie about a guy who’s trying to increase the annual return on his 401K from 6% to 8%, or one about a guy who has to raise $50,000 in two weeks in order to keep his home from going into foreclosure? Is a character more sympathetic if she wants to lessen the effects of her daughter’s seasonal allergies, or if she has just one hour to find an antidote for the exotic poison that her daughter has swallowed? If the consequences and potential results of your protagonist’s external goal aren’t intrinsic to her very well being, then the audience will not be able to sympathize with her and will therefore not care whether or not she succeeds. Make the goal about life or death, and the audience will stay engaged right up to the end.

Screenwriting Mistake #13: Vague goals

Today, I’m going to start a three-part series about protagonist goals, beginning with making the external goal as specific as possible. I’ve read many screenplays in which the protagonist simply bounces around from one situation to another and then the story comes to an end. When that happens, the reader has no idea what the story is about (and neither does the writer, BTW) or whether the protagonist has made any actual changes in his life. Without this kind of character arc, your audience will zone out faster than a nursing home resident after Thanksgiving dinner. Seriously, I have GOT to work on my analogies.
When I ask the authors of scripts like this what the protagonist’s goal is, they frequently give me answers like, “to be happier,” or, “to have a better relationship with his father,” or, ”to be in a romantic relationship,” etc. The problem with goals this vague is that it’s hard to know whether or not the protagonist has accomplished them. Your protagonist must have a clear, tangible, easily definable external goal so that the audience will root for him to accomplish it and then know with absolute certainty whether or not he was successful.
For example, if a protagonist’s goal is to be happier, maybe you could simplify that into getting a coveted promotion or becoming a naturalized citizen. If a protagonist wants to have a better relationship with his father, maybe you could represent that by stopping his family home from going into foreclosure, or perhaps playing one last game of catch with his dad’s ghost in a plowed-over Iowa cornfield. (If you write it, they will read…) If your hero’s goal is to be in a good relationship, then maybe you could narrow that down to something as specific as having someone to kiss at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, or convincing Suzie Tompkins to go to the prom with him, even though she’s a total skank and his next-door neighbor Laura has been totally in love with him since, like, the third grade. Sorry, I couldn’t stop myself from weaving in an incredibly original sub-plot.
Let’s look at some examples of good external goals from actual movies. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” Olive’s goal is not to be happy or to spend more time with her family (understandably). Her goal is to get to California in time to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, and even more specific than that, it’s to do the dance that her grandfather taught her during the talent part of that pageant. Excellent specificity with a great payoff. In “The Godfather,” Michael’s external goal is to stay out of the family business. Because his goal is this clear, the audience knows with absolute certainty that he has failed when Clemenza kisses his hand and calls him “Don Corleone.” If you want to give your audience a protagonist that they can root for and to end your movie with a satisfying sense of completion, the best way to do that is to give your protagonist this kind of clear, tangible external goal.