Monday, July 1, 2013

Online tutorial now free

I've decided, as a gesture in my upcoming retirement, to make my ground-breaking screenwriting tutorial free online. Access it here.

Consequently I've lowered the price of this book, which now becomes a companion to the tutorial, the basics available for offline use. They work together.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Rhythms of Act One

In 3-act filmic storytelling, Act One is probably the most understood because it is most clear what has to be done. This is not so much "good news" as challenging news for the screenwriter because the burden of Act One of a screenplay is to accomplish very much in very little time.

The Hook

The first challenge of the screenwriter is to get and hold our attention. I give my university students "the popcorn test." It goes this way.

A couple sits down in a movie house the moment before the feature begins. The woman leans to the man and says, "We should have gotten popcorn." The feature begins. The man looks at the screen. Can he go out and buy popcorn or is he so riveted by what's happening on the screen that he stays put?

Your job, as screenwriter, is to make sure no one can leave to buy popcorn.

In Jurassic Park, we open with a guard being killed by some sort of strange, caged creature. What is going on? We want to know. We are hooked.

Look at the first minute or several minutes of any movie -- and then ask yourself, "Why am I watching this?" If you have an answer, the movie has a good hook. So should you.

The Complication

With the attention of the audience "hooked" to our opening, it's time to move quickly to the spine of our story. What I call "the complication" is an important story event that begins this movement.

In Jurassic Park the complication is the scene following the guard's death, when a lawyer reveals that the accident may delay the opening of the theme park of cloned prehistoric animals. What is needed is the endorsement of a respected scientist that the park is safe, despite the accident.

Notice how this moves us to the participation of the main character, the scientist. Sometimes the complication involves the protagonist directly, as in The Graduate. Here we have a "soft hook" -- a quirky main character whom we meet at the film's opening moment. Who is this guy? At the complication, Mrs. Robinson makes her first move on him. This request for a ride home, and later a more explicit proposition, propels us to the focus of the story, which is their affair and its consequences.

The Call To Action

Perhaps the most important moment in the structure of Act One is the "call to action." This is an action by the main character that moves him or her directly into the spine of the story, that dramatic area of focus that locates what the story is essentially going to be about.

In Jurassic Park, the scientist is given such a good deal to check out the theme park that he can't refuse. He says "Yes," and the story reveals its focus. In The Graduate, Benjamin hems and haws about the possibility of an affair with Mrs. Robinson and finally, in his bungling way, says "Yes." Again, the story finds its focus.
A call to action is usually the protagonist saying "Yes" -- doing an action that is affirmative -- to a question that moves us into the central focus of the story.

End of Act One Plot Point

Once "in the story," the hero reaches a point where normal life (how the protagonist lived before the story) gives way to extra-normal life, the "new life" in the story. Mythic critics call this the move from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary worlds. The scientist moves from his usual life on a dig to the extraordinary experience of being among cloned prehistoric animals. Benjamin moves from uncertain, bored college graduate to a man having an affair with a married woman and friend of his family. The journey of the main character is from ordinary life into the highly charged, unusual experiences represented by the story. The story has begun in earnest.


Let's look at the rhythms of Act One again, with another example.

1. The Hook. We get the audience's attention. In Shakespeare in Love, a debtor is being tortured. He promises the pay off the debt with monies from Shakespeare's new play.
2. The Complication. Time to move toward the focus of the story. But Shakespeare has writer's block. He needs a female muse.
3. The Call to Action. The hero says "Yes." First, Shakespeare says "Yes" to the wrong woman - he catches her in bed with someone else. Then he meets Viola at a dance. He wants her. He starts writing like crazy, even writing her a sonnet. We have found the focus, their love story and the play this energy creates.
4. Plot Point. The hero moves from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary world. Will puts his new play in rehearsal and casts the disguised Viola. He's falling in love with Viola and impressed with the actor at the same time, not realizing they are the same. He is at the top of his powers. The life of this play is his new world, and in it he will meet all the coming surprises of the story.
These are the rhythms of Act One, all of which must be established in 20 to 30 pages. In my next column I'll look at Act Two, which most screenwriters believe is the most difficult to write.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Importance of Three-Act Storytelling

Very early in one's screenwriting studies, the beginner will learn how important screenplay structure is. 

"Screenplays are structure," William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidThe Princess BrideAbsolute Power, etc.) writes over and over again in his wonderful book, Adventures in the Screen Trade. The way a story is put together, its dramatic structure, is one of the very important skills a beginning screenwriter must master.

Act One, Act Two, Act Three

Okay, structure is important. But what does this mean exactly? As the beginning screenwriter studies more, he or she soon will encounter something called "three-act structure." A screenplay has an Act One, Act Two and Act Three, each in which certain story elements are developed (set up, conflict, and resolution, in broad terms). Fine.

But then the student is likely to learn things that begin a cycle of increased confusion: no, a self-appointed screenwriting guru will insist, a screenplay doesn't have three acts, it has four acts. No, argues another, it has seven acts. No, says still another, there are twelve steps that are necessary to build solid screenplay structure. Soon, everywhere the student turns reveals a new theory about what screenplay structure means. What is going on?

What is going on is competition for your attention -- and business. Screenwriting education is a hot new cottage industry because "the Great American Screenplay" (not the "Great American Novel," as in my generation) is what more and more young writers aspire to write. In this competitive environment, "new takes" on screenplay structure become koans for the new gurus who appear to meet increased demand for information on how to write for the screen. If the beginner isn't confused by this barrage of information, he or she hasn't been paying attention.

What is important to understand is that these many theories are not in competition with one another at all; they complement one another. First, they all -- without exception! -- are rooted in three-act dramatic structure as first set down by Aristotle in his Poetics. This simply is the way stories are told in our culture. Second, they each focus on a particular aspect of this theory or recast the theory into new terminology.

Dramatic Movement

Aristotle's theory, which is at the very root of storytelling craft in western culture, is that we tell stories that have a beginning (Act One), a middle (Act Two), and an end (Act Three). In other words, our stories have dramatic movement -- THINGS HAPPEN. One of the wisest things ever written about structure comes from Richard Toscan (author of The Playwriting Seminars on the Internet): "American movies are about what happens next." When properly understood, this is a profound statement about how we tell stories.

Movement. Change.

What causes movement and change in a story? Conflict. Screenplay structure, then, is rooted in conflict, story movement, change, so we are always asking ourselves: What happens next? And who is involved in conflict? People. Our characters. In particular, our main character, called the protagonist, because Hollywood stories are almost always star-centered, main-character-centered, hero-centered, protagonist-centered. When a protagonist wants something (goal) and faces someone or something that prevents him or her from getting it (obstacle or antagonist), you have conflict.


This simple rule is the basis of good filmic storytelling. Conflict, conflict, and more conflict. The skill is to keep focus on the protagonist and to build conflict so the journey of the protagonist moves into more dangerous and challenging territory, leading to the final confrontation and resolution. Three-act structure is a tool for doing exactly this.

Telling a story without three-act structure (no matter what you call it) is like building a house without a foundation. Without foundation, the walls are going to sag -- and eventually the house will self-destruct. Three-act structure is the very foundation of filmic storytelling, and without it your screenplay will self-destruct.

The opposite of wanting to know what happens next is boredom, which is the worst thing that can be said about a story. Three-act screenplay structure precludes boredom by arranging story events in such an order that conflict causes change, which in turn causes new conflict, building and building until the story's final confrontation and resolution. Set up, Conflict (and more conflict, and more), Resolution. Beginning, Middle, End.

Act One, Act Two, Act Three -- no matter what you call it. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Is screenwriting right for you?

Each term in my university screenwriting class, I observe a minority of students whose enthusiasm for writing a screenplay collapses once they learn what the craft of screenwriting and the role of the screenwriter are really about. This is understandable because screenwriting is unlike any other narrative form in two very important ways: 1. Screenwriting is, at root, a collaborative form of writing. 2. In screenwriting, storytelling is more important than rhetoric.

Screenwriting As Collaboration

Other forms of writing are collaborative -- playwriting, for example -- but in no other narrative form is the writer less powerful. David Mamet has described the collaborative process in screenwriting this way: "Bend over!" Unfortunately, it's not far from the truth. The contrast between screenwriting and playwriting is revealing. In both, a writer writes a script for performance, and what the audience receives is not a reading experience but a story presented through the intermediaries of actors who are rehearsed by a director. Not one word in a stage play can be changed without the playwright's permission. Period. The text is always in the writer's control. In screenwriting, this is only the case when the screenwriter directs his or her own movie. In fact, a writer can get fired from the team developing his own script, and such firings are not unusual. Producers, directors and primary actors all outrank screenwriters and can suggest script changes. A screenwriter who doesn't make them gets fired.

Filmic Storytelling

Screenwriting is not a "writerly" narrative form. Perhaps in no other form of writing are pure language skills less rewarded or important. The reason for this is simple, although beginners sometimes don't get told so: a screenplay is not a literary document. It is not presented as a piece of writing to be read and appreciated on its own. Far from it. A screenplay is primarily two things: a blueprint for a movie and a business plan. The job of the screenwriter is to tell a certain kind of story as crisply and efficiently as possible, in an effort to get others enthused about forming a team and raising a production budget to make a movie. Flowery prose gets in the way of this effort. Only when writing dialogue does the screenwriter get to "show off" one's rhetorical mastery, and in a screenplay dialogue should be secondary to visual storytelling. Moreover, the language of the screenplay is "minimalist," the very opposite from the rich prose style of many novelists. The screenwriter must write a gripping story using junior high or lower language skills (other than in dialogue). A screenwriter isn't writing literature but a proposal -- let's make a movie!

The Bottom Line

The low station of the screenwriter on the pecking order of a production team and the relative unimportance of rhetorical dazzle are enough to chase many writers, particularly fiction writers, away from screenwriting. So be it. Those of us who remain can get satisfaction that we are telling stories in the primary narrative mode of our culture. It requires craft to tell these stories well, and we can accept the challenge of "minimalism" as a challenge to write a kind of poetry, not doggerel for juveniles. Finally we write screenplays for the best reason of all -- we can't do otherwise.