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Notes on Screenwriting
10 screenwriting insights ....................................................... 6

Story Goal ............................................................................. 22

The Word .............................................................................. 22

Logline .................................................................................. 22

How to write a logline .......................................................... 23

Seven Questions.................................................................... 32

Outline .................................................................................. 37

Premise.................................................................................. 38

Treatment ............................................................................. 40

A Character Checklist ......................................................... 46

A Conflict Checklist ............................................................. 47

A Plot Checklist .................................................................... 49

A tip sheet for storming Tinseltown ... ............................... 51

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Fundamental Elements of Storytelling ............................... 54

The Step Outline .................................................................. 56

Momentum: Building Tension ........................................... 70

The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet .............................................. 86

The Screenplay Paradigm ................................................... 91

Nine-Act Structure for Plot Development........................ 127

Screenplay Manuscript Format ........................................ 134

Screenplay Structure: Three Acts & Five Points ............ 139

Screenplay Structure the PROPPER Way ...................... 146

The Stages of the Heros Journey ..................................... 154

Where I disagree with the Heros Journey ...................... 174

A new character-driven Heros Journey.......................... 186

Character ............................................................................ 230

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Four Types of Heroes......................................................... 253

The Action-Adventure Protagonist: ................................. 266

Making Your Hero More Effective .................................. 282

Antagonists ......................................................................... 289

Three Kinds of Antagonists............................................... 291

The Action-Adventure Antagonist: .................................. 295

Strengthening Your Antagonist ........................................ 299

Cast Design ......................................................................... 301

Secondary Characters ....................................................... 304

Giving a Minor Character Life: ....................................... 312

What Exactly is a Character Arc?.................................... 315

The Seven Deadly Sins and Character Motivation: ........ 320

Using Stress to Reveal Character: .................................... 322

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12 Stages for Plotting the Main Characters Growth ..... 325

Finding the Perfect Tragic Past: ....................................... 339

Character Evolution .......................................................... 343

The secret to subplots ........................................................ 355

The one subplot you really need ....................................... 365

Dialogue .............................................................................. 380

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10 screenwriting insights

1. Why people go to the movies

If youre making films to be viewed by the cinema-going

public, it would seem pretty obvious that you should seek to
understand why people go the movies, wouldnt it? Not to me.
I scratched around for about 6 years and had already written
several very poor drafts of my first screenplay without ever
contemplating this fundamental question. Fortunately, the
inspirational UCLA English Professor, Lynn Batten, forced
me to address the question well, not so much about movies
but about stories and myths in general. Why do humans need
cracking yarns? Joseph Campbells The Power of Myth
supplied the answer.

What people are seeking is the feeling of being alive. They

want to feel the rapture of being alive.

They want to be moved, guys. They want to identify with a

character whos struggling, as they are, with the exquisitely
frustrating dilemma of life, and who, in facing their greatest
fear, draws on their higher self. In my darkest hour in LA, this
epiphany transformed my writing.

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2. Its not about the plot

Most writers starting out think story is plot and when you ask
them to tell you about their film theyll go, Well, this
happens, and that happens, and then this other things happens,
and oh, and I forgot to tell you, theres this three-legged dog
who can talk

However, once you understand that people want to be moved,

you should realize that the main game in story is not plot. Its
not the outer goal that ultimately triggers our emotions but the
inner journey. Thats not to say that the outer goal doesnt
matter. It does. Its what gets the punters into the cinema in
the first place. But if the hero pursues the outer goal with no
inner change, no matter how spectacular your climax, no
matter how many bodies or cars or interplanetary spaceships
you lay to waste in that final 20 pages and no matter how
eloquent that 3-legged dog is, we wont be moved one jot. Plot
matters but only because its what drives the inner
transformation. Plot isnt the end. Its just the means.

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3. The only screenwriting book youll ever need

Blake Snyder bills his book, Save The Cat, as the last book
on screenwriting youll ever need. This is categorically NOT
the book to which I refer. Save The Cat has some useful things
to say about concept but Im not sure that it encourages writers
to create films with soul.

McKee is treated like a screenwriting God. His expensive

lectures are sold out and his book Story is only marginally less
popular than the Bible. Unfortunately, what he says about
screenwriting simply doesnt resonate for me. By all means,
check it out but the emotional journey isnt emphasized
sufficiently for my liking.

If you are to only buy one book about screenwriting, please,

please, let it be Chris Voglers The Writers Journey.

Vogler, a Hollywood story analyst whos consulted on films

like Lion King, takes the Heros Journey of mythology guru,
Joseph Campbell, and makes it both accessible to the average
person and relevant specifically to the movies. It categorically
changed my life.

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There are 3 reasons why I love the Heros Journey and
consider it the most useful story paradigm for screenwriters.

i) It was not invented. It was merely identified. Joseph

Campbell read stories from all over the world, across all time,
and found that every culture was telling the same story over
and over and over again. The monomyth. The heros journey
is not the get-rich-quick gimmick of some San Fernando
Valley shyster. Its the timeless storytelling blueprint of all

ii) The inner journey is intrinsic. I said the inner journey is

what its all about and if you subscribe to the Heros Journey
you cant not have your character go on an inner journey. The
Heros Journey doesnt so much describe plot elements as
identity stages in the transformation of your character.
Become a Campbell/Vogler devotee, and your focus will shift
automatically from plot to emotion. And that, my friends, is
where its at.

iii) It works. Its worked for the great films even if the
writers werent aware they were following its conventions. Its
worked for George Lucas who consulted Campbell on the
early Star Wars films. Its worked for George Miller. George

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is a huge Campbell fan and its no coincidence that hes been
Australias most successful filmmaker on the international
stage. Its worked for millions of storytellers for thousands of
years so theres a good chance it might just work for you.

If you havent got this book, buy it. If you havent read it, pick
it up and see how it applies to the films you love. And if you
want to spend a day exploring this amazing gift, come to my
Introduction to Screenwriting course. The Heros Journey is
the foundation to everything I teach.

4. The 27-word concept test

Some people say that a logline the description of the films

concept can be 2 or 3 sentences.

Film demands simple ideas. Complex plots but simple ideas. If

you cant express your idea in a single sentence of 27 words,
youre going to struggle on two grounds:

i) You probably wont be able to tell your story in 110 pages

ii) The marketing department will have the devils own job in
trying to market your film.
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The 27-word concept test interrogates the dramatic engine of
your film and is just about the most valuable tool in the
screenwriters toolkit. Use it early. And use it often.

5. The 4 basic questions of storytelling

1. Who is the hero?

2. What do they want?
3. Whats stopping them from getting it?
4. Whats at stake?

This might seem obvious to you but it was a revelation to me

and I can tell you that 90% screenplays fail these basic tests.
Its not clear whose story it is, the goal isnt distinguished in a
way that will allow us to know when theyve crossed the
finish line, the forces of antagonism arent great enough or it
doesnt matter enough to the character so why should we care?

These elements shouldnt just be obvious in your overall story

but in each scene. Who wants what in this scene and why?
Who is stopping them trying to get it and how do they thwart
our hero?

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Without these elements, you dont have conflict. No conflict,
no drama. No drama, no chance of screenwriting glory.

6. The secret to character is contradiction

In our first class of Dramatic Storytelling in the Grad Cert last

week, we watched the opening scene of The Godfather and I
asked my writers, why do we find the Don engaging and one
of the first things someone said was, The cat. Spot on. The
mafia boss is stroking a cat.

Now, antagonists in James Bond and Austin Powers films

have given cat-stroking a bad rap, but what was the intention
of the writer here with this touch of domesticity? To provide a
counterpoint to the expectations of the stereotype. Its a
contradiction and its the key to great characterization.

Think about Indiana Jones. Dashing, brave, handsome,

fearless. Well, not quite. Hes not too keen on snakes.

Tony Soprano. Brutal, murderous, brothel-keeping, drug

running Mafioso? Yes. But in episode 1 his character crisis is

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triggered because a family of ducks no longer comes to his
backyard swimming pool. Contradiction.

And this is not just something that applies to heroes. Think

about Anton Sugar (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old
Men. What makes him one of the great antagonists? Not just
that he blows people away with that weird gas cylinder
weapon. Its that, when he fears that the guy in the remote
truck stop might compromise him, he gives the poor sap a
sporting chance. He flips a coin. Heads you win, tails you get
a cross city tunnel through your cerebral cortex. He also
intrigues us because he has an unbreakable ethical code. He
said he is going to kill the guys wife so kill her he must. Hes
a psychopath but hes a highly principled psychopath.

Here are some others:

Hannibal Lecter Cultured cannibal

Harry Burns in When Harry Met Sally Romantic pessimist

Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally Pragmatic optimist

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Ronny Cammareri (Nic Cage) in Moonstruck Opera-loving

Shrek Sentimental ogre

The key to characterization is credibly building these sorts of

opposites into your characters. It stops them being clichs and
helps the audience warm to them because no matter how great
they are, theyre flawed like us, and no matter how bad they
are, they have redeeming qualities, like we do on a good day.

7. Dont keep your idea a secret

Australian screenwriters are very secretive about their film

concepts. Whats your film about? I cant tell you that!!! Go to
LA and try to STOP someone telling you their idea. Not just
writers in your UCLA Extension class, but the guy at the
sandwich shop or the barmaid at Hooters. They constantly
pitch their ideas and this is something I would encourage you
to do too.

The danger with keeping your idea to yourself until its

finished is that your idea, with all due respect, might be crap.
If youre a writer just starting out, they generally are. Its just

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the way it is. Mine was crap and I wasted years of my life
drafting and redrafting it because I didnt bounce it off

The other reason you should verbally tell your story to people
in the early stages is because you can tell as the words are
coming out of your mouth whether its working or not. You
dont need their glazed reaction to know youve got yourself a
stinker or to hear their so what happens next to know youre
on a winner. You just know through some hard-wired
storytelling instinct.

This is one place where I absolutely agree with Blake Snyder.

Bounce your idea off people as soon as you can. If its not
working, try to reshape it. If they still say, Yeah, its nice
then trash it and find a fresh vehicle to transport your genius to
the world.

8. Why sometimes the best way to write is not to write

The worst mistake a writer can make is to not write to sit

down at your desk only when you feel inspired. You need to
create a regimen and stick to it. If you can only manage 30
minutes a day, OK, but make sure you put in that half hour no

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matter what. There should be no excuse. Work. Kids. Alien
invasion. If you have the conviction, youll find the time. My
routine at the moment is to get up at 5.30am, which doesnt
sound too appealing but your body quickly adjusts and I now
automatically wake up at that time. Just ask my wife.

But the next mistake you can make is to think you will only
solve that problem at the Act 2 Turning Point by continuing to
wrestle with it on the page. Youre exhausted and cranky but
you are not going to give in til youve found the answer. Bad

Do you do cryptic crosswords? I love them. But one of the

amazing things Ive found is that something I might struggle
with when I look at it on Friday morning is bloody obvious at
Friday lunchtime. Why? Because my subconscious has had
time to work on it. Its the same with your screenplay.

Your mind is an amazing bit of gear but youve got to start

learning how to get the most out of it. And thats not by
pounding it into submission. You need to become aware of the
moment when its ceased to be productive and back off. Go
for a swim or walk the dog. Go play the piano, guitar, or, in
my case, plastic recorder. Do yoga or meditate. Im amazed at

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the number of times the solution will come to me when Im
not looking for the solution. Ill be running around the park
and Ill suddenly find myself seeing the answer and come out
of the trance with no recollection of how many laps Ive done.

Your brain is a gift. And sometimes it does its best work when
it seems not to be working at all.

9. Get a day job. But not just any day job.

Even if you are the greatest writer in the world, its going to
take you time to develop your craft and heres the problem
no-one is going to pay you to learn your trade. There were
very few screenwriting apprenticeships available down at
Centrelink the last time I looked. So before you can face the
challenges of screenwriting in general and your current film in
particular, you need to answer a more fundamental question:
how am I going to support myself while I learn my craft?

Ive tried every possible approach. For a long time I took

incredibly poorly paid jobs that offered great time flexibility
(hostel manager in NY, pizza cook in Ireland, housekeeper to
a countess in London). On the plus side, you get a lot of
writing done but on the down side, you make enormous

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personal and social sacrifices. You tell yourself that its only
until I finish this next draft and then all of a sudden youre 43,
single with no assets, no super and about $20k in debt.

The other approach is to try to write while holding down a real

job. On the plus side, you dont hide when the landlord knocks
and you can afford a loaf of bread without having to search for
gold colored coins down the back of the sofa. On the down
side, the responsibilities and stress mean your writing is too
often sidelined and years go by without you making any
meaningful progress.

The best option Ive found after years of trial and error is well-
paid freelance work. Copywriting for instance. If youre good
and you wont be without practice you can make $100/hr
and sometimes $1000 a day so that you dont need to work 5
days to earn a decent crust. If you have some skill that allows
you to earn a lot of money in a short time on a flexible basis,
you can create the window you need in your life to develop
your craft. If not, you will be faced with a choice: do I want
lifestyle or do I really desperately want to be a writer? Thats a
question only you can answer.

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10. Choose a producer like youd choose a spouse

When youve finally written your screenplay and you find a

producer who says that they love it and they want to option it,
your response is, Where do I sign?, right? Wrong. Oh, so,
very wrong.

The writer-producer relationship is like a marriage. Only more

important. Its probably going to take your producer 3 years to
get your film up and possibly a whole lot longer. Producer
Vincent Sheehan just got funding approval for a film he
started on 8 years ago. That is a long time, particularly when
people are poking and prodding around inside something very
near and dear to you. If you choose the wrong producer, the
development process will drive you absolutely insane and
your baby will end up mutilated or murdered. I myself have
been through this nightmare scenario and it almost made me
quit the game.

Choose a producer who knows one end of a story from the

other and who obeys the first commandment of the writer-
producer collaborative process that its the producers job to
identity whats not working and the writers job to fix it. Its
amazing the number of producers who will tell you, Well,

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Im not a writer but and then proceed to dictate (literally)
what they expect to see in the next draft. Thats a recipe for a
bad relationship and a tragic script outcome.

The pitfalls where producers are concerned dont stop there.

They might be wonderful collaborators but that same
sensitivity might make them lousy at getting your project read
by the people that matter. Producing, ultimately, is selling. Of
course, on the flip side, great salesman throughout history
havent generally been renowned for their ethics.

Am I scaring you? Good. Make the wrong choice here and all
your talent and hard work could end up counting for naught.

So dont hook up with the first producer who asks you out.
Research the market and find answers to these questions:

What have they made?

Do you like what theyve made?
Did it tell a good story?
Have they made a film thats done business
Do writers like to work with them creatively?

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Do they have a habit of screwing writers

Play hard to get. Of course, in order to play hard to get, you

have to have produced a screenplay that gleams. But when you
have labored and sweated to produce that rare entity, dont
give it to just any clown. Take some time and confer it on
someone whos going to give your screenplay its best chance
to delight and move the world. Sign in haste. Repent at leisure.


So thats it. Thats not all Ive learned. I hope. But these are
the 10 things that would have made the greatest difference to
my career trajectory if someone had told me them all those
years ago. I hope that by getting the tips now, you can fast-
track your path to screenwriting fulfillment.

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Story Goal

An engaging character overcomes tremendous obstacles to

reach a desirable goal.

The Word

Find a single word that encapsulates the theme of your work.

In the end, movies all come down to a single concept, a single


Your logline is your story reduced to an ad copy blurb that

tells what your movie is about and makes us want to see it.

Many times a story begins with the two words WHAT IF?
and to really nail your story, you might also need to throw in
the two words AND THEN? For example, what if an
asteroid the size of Texas was hurtling toward Earth and then
the worlds greatest oil drilling team has 72 hours to stop it?

Dont give away the ending, just set up the story parameters.

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How to write a logline

Before you write a single scene of your 120-page screenplay,

try to express your films logline in 27 words or less. Putting
your concept to this simple, early test can help focus your
narrative, gauge potential and save years of wasted effort.

Write your logline at the beginning not the end

Typically, screenwriters sweat for months or years over a

screenplay, going through endless drafts, major revisions and
minor refinements. Only when the script is finished, and
even then only at the request of the producer, will they write
the logline. This is ass backwards. Heres why.

Writing the logline up front could save you years

I was recently asked to produce script notes for a project that

has been in development for several years. Yet after reading
just 10-15 pages of the screenplay I knew the project was in
trouble because the fundamental concept wasnt sound.
Thousands of dollars could have been spared and years could
have been saved if only the writer had first written a logline.

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What is a logline?

The logline is a single sentence description of your films

basic story idea in 27* words or less. You might also hear it
referred to as the concept or the premise. Its the concisely
written version of what you say when people ask you the
question, So whats your film about?.

Why the logline is a good test of story simplicity

Film is a demanding medium. You have just an hour and a

half 2 hours if youre lucky to tell your story. Thats
nothing. The average 300-page novel might take 6 hours to
film which is one reason why book adaptations are so hit-
and-miss in the cinema. So good movies tend to have simple
story ideas. The plots might be complex, but the concepts are
almost always simple. Thats why the logline is such a great
test of film stories. One sentence. 27 words. If your storys too
complex to be told in 27 words, then its almost certainly too
complicated for a 90 min movie.

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Why the logline is a good test of story marketability

Writing films is tough but marketing them is even more

difficult. How do you arrest peoples attention in a one-sheet
poster? How do you hook them with a tagline? How do you
open a window in their diary with a 15 second trailer? Again,
its going to need to be a simple, easily communicatable idea.
But its also going to need to be immediately compelling. If
you cant hook me in 27 words youll have no chance with the
cinema-going public.

What should you include in the logline?

Learning to write loglines is an art in itself. Here are some tips

for what you should include in those precious 27 words:

Who is the hero? You should identify the protagonist

(though not necessarily by name), the person whose story this
is, the character with whom we are meant to identify. e.g. an
ageing baseball player, an alcoholic lawyer, a struggling single

What is the Quest? What does the hero want? What is the
overarching external goal that is going to drive the events of

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the second act at least and possibly even the third act as well.
e.g. has to kill a great white shark, rescue the princess from a
dragon, find the groom.

What is the heros flaw? Stories are plots that force the
hero to grow. What is your heros failing? Does he lack
courage or compassion? What sort of opportunity is there here
for emotional growth? e.g. selfish, cowardly, greedy,
materialistic, immoral, womanizing, ruthless, workaholic,

Where is the conflict? Drama is all about conflict so we

need to understand why this quest is going to be difficult for
the hero.

Whats at stake? For audiences to care, the hero has to have

a very strong motivation. If they dont achieve this goal, the
consequences are massive in their eyes any way. You will
generally try to convey in your logline whats at stake .

Who is the antagonist? You wont always include the

antagonist unless its a romantic comedy but it can be a
good way to establish the conflict and the impossibility of the
heros quest.

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What is the tone? If its a comedy, its a good idea to try to
convey that through either the title or the logline.

Whats the USP In advertising, they used to talk about

Unique Selling Point (USP). The thing that set the product
apart from its competitors. What is it about your film that is
most likely to appeal to the audience? Your logline should
attempt to convey this quality or element to us.

How do you do all that in 27 words? Yeah, its not easy but
here are some clues.

How to write your logline

If youve read any Joseph Campbell or Chris Vogler, or

youve been to one of my courses on classic film story
structure, youll know that we meet the hero in their Ordinary
World, that they get a Call to Adventure and that this quest
presents a challenge to their character. Consequently, its often
effective for your logline to have a structure something like
this: When < flawed hero at start of story> is forced to <call
to adventure>, he has to <opportunity for emotional growth>
or risk <whats at stake>.

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What you dont include in the logline

Theres one thing you shouldnt include in the logline. The

ending. It must tease, tempt and demand that the person reads
your script. Give away the ending in the logline and youve
removed that need.

You also shouldnt include a goal that isnt concrete. e.g.

must find true love. What is that? How will we know when
theyve got it? The goal has to drive the drama so it needs to
be specific.

Examples of film loglines:

Here are some examples of loglines for well-known films:

Schindlers List:
When a materialistic, womanizing Aryan industrialist
discovers his Jewish workers are being sent to Nazi death
camps, he risks his life and fortune to save them.

Groundhog Day:
An egotistical TV personality must relive the same day in
small town Punxsutawney and be denied the girl of his dreams
unless he can become more selfless.

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Raiders of the Lost Ark:
A dashing archaeologist must reunite with the ex he dumped if
he is to beat the Nazis to find the all-powerful lost Ark of the

Little Miss Sunshine:

When a dysfunctional family reluctantly embarks on a road
trip to a Californian junior beauty pageant its forced to
address its serious underlying tensions or fall apart forever.

When Harry Met Sally:

When a cynical anti-romantic befriends a cheery optimist hes
forced to challenge his belief that men and women cant have
a Platonic relationship.

The Hangover: After a wild Vegas Bucks Party, a

dysfunctional bunch of guys wakes with no memory of last
night, a tiger in the bathroom, and no groom.

Judging your logline try to be objective

One of the great things about the logline is that its almost
self-regulating. The 27-word limit will make it impossible to
communicate ideas that are too sprawling or ill-focused for a

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mainstream movie. However, just because youve written a
logline that complies with the word limit doesnt mean youve
got a blockbuster on your hands. Be honest in your assessment
of your logline. Better still, give it to someone who isnt your
lover, spouse or mother. Does it intrigue them? Do they want
to know what happens? If not, chances are your idea isnt
strong enough for a movie. If youre disciplined, youll rework
the idea or ditch it altogether. If youre a fool, youll persist
and potentially waste years on a project that has only the
slimmest chance of success.

The logline write it early and write it often

I would encourage you to put your film idea to the logline test
very early in the writing process. Trying to express the idea in
a single sentence of 27 words can help distil the essence of
your idea.

Whose story is it?

What do they want?
Whats stopping them getting it?
Whats at stake?

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Constantly revisit your logline during the writing process. Is
your story still true to the logline? Or have you strayed?
Sometimes during the writing process youll come up with an
idea that takes the story in a new direction that you believe has
even better potential. If so, rewrite your logline. Move from
logline, to story, to screenplay, then back to logline again. In
this way, youll hopefully avoid the all-too-common mistake
particularly in Australia of spending years writing a
screenplay that either no-one wants to make or no-one wants
to see.

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Seven Questions

1. Who is your Main Character? (You can only have


Novels can be filled with characters, but although

films may be populated with large ensembles, in the
end, a single protagonist primarily drives Hollywood
storytelling. Thus, you really need to decide who
your main character is. Not your five main
characters, but your one main character. Start and
end the movie with this person and follow him or her
throughout the script. They are the heart and soul or
your story and if they arent likable, you are dead. So
make sure they have a rich inner life and lots of
fascinating character traits.

2. What does your main character want/need/desire?

(In other words, what is his dramatic problem? Bear
in mind that this dramatic problem needs to be
articulated in terms of both an inner and an outer

If your movie is only as good as your main character,

it is equally true that your main character is only as

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interesting as their dramatic problem. So make sure
that what they want/need/desire is something that all
of us in the audience also want/need/desire. The top
three answers to this question are usually love,
money, and life (i.e. survival). Be careful of vague
answers here. Love is a valid desire, but usually it
comes as a reward for getting the pot of gold or
killing the bad guy. Film as a concrete, visual
medium demands that the want/need/desire be
filmable. In other words, love is great, but how do
you film it? Sex, a kiss, or a pot of gold is much
easier to see on film.

3. Who/what keeps him from achieving what he

wants? (Who/what are the apparent and true

Your movie is only as good as your bad guy and the

tremendous obstacles that rise along the path of your
main characters journey. So, it is not your job to be
nice and make your protagonists life easy, but
instead to fill his life with hardships, conflicts, and
obstacles. In addition, your antagonist can change
over the course of the story, and the apparent
antagonist may become an ally while an apparent ally

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may become the true antagonist. Finally, Mother
Nature may also become one of the antagonists, or
even the true antagonist.

4. How in the end does he achieve what he wants in

an unexpected, interesting, and unusual way?

The key to filmic storytelling is not about the WHAT

of your story, but about the HOW. The events that
happen in your story must always be fresh and
unexpected. The audience thinks they want to
anticipate what is going to happen, but in reality, they
want to be tricked. It is your job to plant story
elements throughout the script so that even though
the ending is unexpected, interesting, and unusual,
the audience will see in retrospect, that it is also

5. What are you trying to say by ending the story

this way? (What is your theme, and do you have any
unifying filmic devices?)

Movies are driven by themes, and usually there are

also several unifying filmic devices (UFDs) that can
be thought of as recurring visual, narrative, or

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dialogical motifs. The recurrence of certain elements
is a dead giveaway for the conscious and unconscious
themes of the author. It is very valuable to look at
what constantly reappears in your work (character
types, episodes, events, lines of dialogue, props, etc.).
These recurring events, people, and lines of dialogue
reveal a deeper inner meaning if they are analyzed
from an objective distance. If a writer desires to add
greater power and complexity to his work by
incorporating certain thematic elements, he can
consciously intersperse various UFDs throughout the

In the end, your theme is determined by the way you

finish your story. Climax and conclusion dictate the
overriding thematic statement of your story.
Therefore, be conscious of how you end your story
and what you are saying by utilizing such an ending.

6. How do you want to tell your story? (Who should

tell it, if anyone, and what narrative devices should
you employ?)

Of course you want to tell your story well, but the

key thing here is exactly how you want to manipulate

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the scene order and what devices you will employ
along the way. Do you start in the middle and work
backward? Do you use voice-over or flashbacks?
Do you have a narrator and if so, what role will he or
she play in the film? In fact, your narrator might not
necessarily even be your main character. Many
times, when you are on a third or fourth draft of a
story that just doesnt seem to be working, the answer
is not in the story itself but I the style/structure of the

7. How do your main character and any supporting

characters change over the course of the story?

How does the main character change over the course

of the script? Is this change justified and satisfying?
Does the audience believe the change? Even though
the story may only take place in the course of one
night, does the change happen in legitimate, gradual
stages so that by the end it seems justified and valid?
If there is no change, your audience will feel robbed.
So your film must have a character who arcs and
changes if you want your audience to experience this
arc along with the character and thus grow or change
a little bit by being exposed to your story.

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Begin with an outline listing the following:

World: The storys setting (i.e. The world of diamonds, the

world of railroads).
Incidents: Events that take place in this setting.
Shtick: Visual material or gags applicable to that setting.
Characters: People found in this setting.
Premise: Take a guys fatal flaw (dishonesty) and tie it to a
statement that must be true (Dishonesty leads to destruction).
Thesis: Statement. Villains father killed by US government
for treason decides to avenge him by destroying the USA.
Antithesis: Counter-statement. The hero must stop him.
Synthesis: Resolution. The hero stops him by making him
think that he has destroyed the USA, at which point they get
the information they need to prevent it.
Handcuff: The mission itself, presenting a villain or crisis so
dire that the hero must accept the job.
Point of Attack: The point at which the audience enter the
plot, usually a critical moment with time running out.
Transition: The villains eventual shift from threat to victim.
Growth: Changes in character over the course of the story.

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To start, you need to take your premise and configure it into a

beginning, middle and an end:
Beginning: some aspect of character, or important
aspect of human existence, that will test the character,
such as war, love, or poverty (Character).
Middle: a struggle toward some resolution with
something at risk (Conflict).
End: the final state of being for the character at the
end of the struggle (Conclusion).

Example: A greedy, mean-spirited man manages to survive a

harrowing survival experience in the desert and is transformed
into a more loving, forgiving person.

This formula put as a statement might read: Mean-

spiritedness through a survival struggle leads to forgiveness.

Act I / Act II / Act III

Beginning / Middle / End
Character / Conflict / Conclusion
Mean-spiritedness / Survival Experience / Forgiveness

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At this stage, while formulating your premise with a beginning
and end value, you may use a generic leads to in the middle
to indicate the action of your second act. When your end
value is clear and reflecting the ironic growth from your first
act value, you can then go back and determine the specific
way in which the first one leads to the end value.

Act I / Act II / Act III

A lie, no matter how small / leads to / disaster
Obsessive love / leads to / murder
False perception, dispelled / leads to / personal fulfillment and
True righteousness / conquers / violence and corruption

All drama is conflict; without conflict you have no action;

without action you have no character; without character you
have no story, and without story, you have no screenplay.

A mental or moral struggle caused by incompatible desires

and aims. That is the kind of conflict that makes stories vitally

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Act I
Whos the protagonist? Whats his problem? How does it
become his mission in the story?
Treatment Pages 1-3

The first three pages of your treatment:

Introduce the protagonist in a way that makes him

immediately relatable to the audience, someone we care about
and for whom we want to root. Announce the protagonists
mission in the story in the form of an inciting incident or
problem he must solve. Set up the mood, the movies tone,
its setting, and its stakes.

Suggest why this story is important to all of us the central

question, theme, metaphor, or conflict that will be explored
throughout the movie. Introduce the subplot, or secondary
action line, that complements or conflicts with the
protagonists main action line. Introduce the antagonist, the
protagonists chief obstacle.

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Introduce a major event that turns the protagonist around
completely (what he wants in life is challenged, and now he
must react) and launches him or her into Act II.

Act II
The protagonist encounters obstacles to his mission.
Treatment Pages 4-10

The bulk of your treatment, from pages 4 to 10, narrates the

protagonists encounters with the obstacles that stand in the
way of accomplishing his mission. These obstacles are made
dramatic by the rhythmic way youve arranged them, so as to
take the audience on a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows,
expectations and surprises, escalating complications and
increasingly serious and costly confrontations in which, along
the way, the stakes grow progressively higher and higher.

Since Act 2 does comprise the bulk of your treatment, its

helpful to break it up into three parts, each of which should
end with a major cliffhanger or twist.

Act II, Scene I: Pages 4-6

In pages 4 through 6 (roughly):

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As your protagonist reacts to the challenge he encountered on
page 3, his major decision leads him into action. As he faces
the first challenges, we witness his initial development.
Something happens that also impedes the subplot. Were
given an inkling of whats to come.

Act II, Scene II: Pages 7-8

The protagonists reversals continue, until he begins to make

headway. Then around page 8, new information, or the
triumph over a major obstacle, turns everything 180 degrees to
force the protagonist to face an even greater obstacle than he
or we had previously imagined. Now your protagonist should
be in big trouble, forcing him to reflect and make an even
deeper commitment to his mission.

Act II Scene II: Pages 9-10

Build to Climax

Now the characters come together. The heart of the movie

happens, that quiet romantic or philosophical moment that ups
the ante and makes us root for the protagonists mission even
more than before. This is where to hint at the moral of the
story. It may be the place where all seems lost. The
protagonist may look like hes about to give up.

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As the protagonist faces the biggest hurdle of all, both the

main action line and the subplot seem to be falling apart. Its
the protagonists darkest hour, his final breaking point, the
moment when he realizes all may be lost, and he knows he
must deal with that.

Suddenly something happens that changes everything. The

universe offers him a break. He seizes the moment and goes
for it. Now he has an even bigger picture of what it would
mean to accomplish his mission: not just satisfying his quest
in the story, but fulfilling his quest in life as well. By page 10,
hes standing at this crossroads of action. His next move will
be definitive. He faces the climactic turning point. Will he
win or lose?

The protagonist achieves his mission.
Treatment Pages 11-15

The final pages of your treatment contain the crisis, the

climax, and the storys resolution.

The crisis is the scene or sequence of scenes in which the final

outcome of the story is determined by the protagonists

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actions. When you get to this point, write it as though it were
a separate story, giving it its own beginning, developed
middle, and end. Milk it for all its worth, the producers tell
the director. The milking begins with your treatment of a
complicated crisis, filled with its own twists and turns.

The climax occurs at the end of the crisis, its final moments:
the Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day finally
destroys the bad guys. Now, all thats left is the resolution,
when the Terminator destroys himself in the fiery cauldron t
save the human race.

When its over, let it be over fast. Dont hang around with lots
of words that only take away the dramatic punch of a strong
and satisfying resolution.

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A Character Checklist

1. In a good story the reader forgets where he is and

lives in the story; the reader wants to be the

2. The protagonist must be admirable, or at least likable,

but he should have at least one glaring weakness that
forms the underlying tension that drives the
characters behavior. Capture those conflicting traits
in a simple emotion vs. emotion equation.

3. The protagonist must struggle to solve his problems.

That struggle is the backbone of the story.

4. Avoid stereotypes!

5. Study the people around you; draw your characters

from life.

6. Show the story from the protagonists point of view.

7. Use all five senses: Describe what your characters

see, hear, touch, taste and smell.

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A Conflict Checklist

1. A story is a narrative description of a character

struggling to solve a problem. Nothing more,
nothing less. Struggle means conflict.

2. In fiction, conflict almost always involves a mental or

moral struggle between characters caused by
incompatible desires and aims.

3. Physical action is not necessarily conflict.

4. The conflict in a story should be rooted in the mind

of the protagonist; it is the protagonists inner turmoil
that drives the narrative.

5. The protagonists inner struggle should be mirrored

and amplified by an exterior conflict with an
antagonist. The antagonist may be a character,
nature, or the society in which the protagonist exist.

6. Eschew villains! The antagonist should believe that

he is the hero of the tale.

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7. Be a troublemaker! Create excruciating problems for
your protagonist. And never solve one problem until
you have raised at least two more until the storys

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A Plot Checklist

1. Plant a bomb on the first page in the first

paragraph, if possible.

2. Each story involves a race against time. That time

bomb is set to explode at the climax of the story; its
ticking should be heard on every page.

3. Every scene must further the plot. Especially in a

screenplay, if a scene does not help move the story
forward, take it out.

4. There should be surprises in the story every few

pages. New complications and new problems should
arise as the story progresses, moving the plot along
on a chain of interlinked promises.

5. Show, dont tell!

6. The characters actions should move the story from

its beginning to its end. Characters must be active,
not passive. The protagonist must change.

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7. The story ends when the time bomb goes off (or is
prevented from going off). The ending must answer
satisfactorily the major problems raised in the storys

8. Surprise endings are good only when the reader is

truly surprised; even they must be logically consistent
with the rest of the story.

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A tip sheet for storming Tinseltown ...

Professional screenplay manuscript format is a


Use a 3-act structure.

With a Crisis or Turning-point in the story at the end
of Act I and Act II.

Make Acts I & III about the same length with Act
II about twice the length of Act I.
[Typical page allocation for 120-pg. script: 1=30;
II=60; III=30.] Screenplays are continuous -- don't
the Acts. They're your secret, though the pros will
know where to look.

Tell your story visually with just enough dialogue

to fill in the cracks.
Remember that difference: Film is a sequence of
visual images; theatre is a sequence of verbal images.

Keep your lines of dialogue short.

Even in the most play-like of films, dialogue is
extremely brief.
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American films are about what happens next.

The technology of cutting from one image to the next
has a lot to do with this. European cinema is the only
market for character studies similar to stage plays.

Establish a strong Suspense Plot.

Even in a romantic comedy. Film doesn't cope well
with the mild suspense plots that work well in plays.

Put the Hook [in theatrical terms, the Inciting

Incident] in the first 2 pages.
If you're unproduced, go for page 1.

Keep your scenes short.

3 pages is a good absolute maximum before you cut
to a new location; half a page to a page is typical.

Use less Subtext.

In film, Subtext floats to the surface of the dialogue
much more often, mostly because Hollywood tends
have a very dim view of the intelligence of its

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Put an Emotional Pattern in the Obligatory Scene.
These things are tailor-made for film.

Aim toward a Happy Ending.

It's the norm.

Hold the manuscript to under 120 pages in

screenplay format.
Most production companies won't look at a first
freelance script that's over this magic number and a
100 page maximum would make them happier. A
rule before you're famous: Anything beyond 120
pages is

Do a detailed outline of scenes before writing the


Practice answering the question, "So tell me,

what's this about?"
In one sentence And tag on a comparison to
another recent [and financially successful]
Hollywood film.
If you can't do this easily, or if the mere idea of doing
it annoys you, go back to playwriting.
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Fundamental Elements of Storytelling

1. Your story should take place at the most crucial

time in your main characters life. Which means
you can never make life too easy on your main

Put your main character in lots of trouble. Otherwise,

the story is not worth telling. If our character has
been through these trials in the past, hell know how
to deal with them. He must be challenged constantly.
Throw only the most surprising and difficult
obstacles into his path.
Make him sweat. Keep tension and unpredictability
alive on every page. Youve got to be hard on your
protagonist so that he will be forced to change in a
significant way during the course of the story.

2. Your main character wants to reach his objective

more than anything he has ever wanted before,
and he must be willing to do anything to get there.

Make it nearly impossible for him to get what he

wants, and lets see how he handles it. Its said that
in the best stories the main character reaches a point

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near the end of Act II where he can never hope to
reach his objective, and then, because he reaches
down inside one last time for the strength to do it, in
Act III he gets the job done.

3. The storys focus should be on how your character

faces these hurdles and whether or not he
overcomes them.

What choices does he encounter? What failures does

he endure? How does he grow through adversity?
The journey of your main character is called the
Spine of the story. Everything revolves around this
spine. Every scene is written around it. The story
stays on it, is it. The Spine keeps you focused and
prevents you from wandering off somewhere and
getting lost.

4. External Villains and Internal Demons

Nothing moves forward in any story except through

physical or emotional conflict. Enter the villains and
the demons.

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The Step Outline

In writing your screenplay you have two devices:

Scenes the individual incidents
Sequences the arrangement of those scenes into
meaningful clusters of development

Your tools are:

Visuals the actions your characters enact and your
selection of visual images (into an image system)
Sequences principally dialogue, but also the other
sounds and effects around them

The step outline (also called a scene-by-scene breakdown, or

step sheet, or master scene list) should include at least fifty
major scenes (Try not to do less then forty or more than a
hundred) fifteen in Act I, twenty-five in Act II, and ten in
Act III. All these scenes should be essential to furthering the
story. Each should have a raison d'tre, and there should be
some change in the scripts status quo by the end of every
scene. As you journey from scene to scene, think of
alternating between zeniths and nadirs, high and low
moments, happy and sad, interiors and exteriors.

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The Sequence

The sequence is an important concept to understand; it is the

organizational framework of your story.

There are two types of sequence:

Dramatic a series of scenes linked together or
connected by a single idea that, in themselves, form a
self-contained unit of your screenplay (and end in a
sequence climax)
Bridging or Transitionary mini-sequences used to
link dramatic sequences or to establish character
(early in Act I). They do not culminate in a dramatic

The dramatic sequence is probably the most important

element of a screenplay. This block of dramatic action held
together by one idea can be expressed in one or a few words:
escape, chase, arrival, departure, a certain character, a reunion,
murder, whatever.

Every dramatic sequence has a definite beginning, middle and

end a unit of dramatic action complete within itself each
sequence mirroring the overarching structure of your
screenplay. Moreover, each sequence (dramatic or bridging)

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overlaps slightly with the one next to it, creating continuity
and momentum.

Sequence goals

In each sequence, the central character will have a specific

goal, which they believe is a definitive step towards achieving
their overall screenplay goal (and fulfilling their dramatic
need). This does not mean that there arent also character
development goals which contribute to their transformational
arc. Hence:
The sequence goal is derived from the overall goal
It is different to all the other sequence goals
It must help escalate the action (be stronger than the
previous sequence goal)

In the sequence, each attempt to get the goal meets an

obstacle, which usually fails the first time, and then a new
attempt is made. Each new attempt will involve your
character formulating a new strategy or approach. At the end
the attempt either fails, succeeds or is interrupted. Hence the
main part of any dramatic sequence is the struggle to reach the
sequence goal. Struggle is caused by intention meeting
obstacles and conflict.

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Sequence setbacks

Sequences generally use setbacks, or reversal, as a burst of

energy to move into the next sequence. These setbacks may
not alter the story direction but they change the fortunes of the
characters, causing them to dramatically alter their strategy for
getting their goals. These setbacks usually indicate the
direction which your next sequence will take.

After a setback, a moment or process occurs where the

character realizes their strategy and/or sequence goal must be
abandoned. It may not be conscious but it is often embodied
in some significant action indicating the abandonment.

Context and content

While there is no rule about how many or few sequences you

need for your screenplay, you do need to the know the linking
idea behind each sequence (the context). Youll then find
content will follow.

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The Scene

The scene is the single most important element in a

screenplay, the basic building block. It is where something
happens, something specific happens. It is a distinct unit of
action the place you tell your story and the setting you
design for dramatic conflict.

By definition, a new scene occurs whenever there is a change

of location or time.

The purpose of a scene is to move the story forward.

A scene is as short or as long as it needs to be. It may be one

sentence, one line, or just a couple of words. It may also be
many pages long. However, Readers frown on scenes longer
than three pages (three minutes).

In essence, probably the only cardinal rule of scene work that

cannot be denied is simply this get into the scene late, and
get out of the scene early! It is imperative that you dont dilly-
dally. Start the scene as late as possible and end it as quickly
as possible.

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As in Newtonian physics, for every action there is an equal
and opposite reaction. All your characters actions have
specific ramifications on the other characters within the text as
well as on your story as a whole and on your audience. In
movies, everything is linked. Scenes are ruled by causality.

Scenes are shorthand! In dense psychological novels, we can

digress into the minds of our characters and deal with esoteric
back-story information, but in movies, we cant. So we must
give basically everything we need to know about the character
in the first scene in which we meet that character. Scenes
work quickly, images are powerful, and first impressions are
lasting ones. Thus, when you introduce a character in a scene,
you are basically getting a page, or one minute, to let your
reader and audience place them in their minds. Of course, you
can complicate the character further on in the script, but there
just is not time enough for lengthy diatribes. Therefore, most
characters fall into archetypal patterns, and we readily accept
those patterns.

Scenes come in three types: visual (where something happens

visually, with no dialogue like an action scene or a
bridging/transitional scene); dialogue (for example, a
conversation between one or more characters); and dramatic
scenes (a combination of visuals and dialogue).

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Visual scenes are usually very short and undramatic, their

single purpose to connect other scenes and act as a bridge or
transition between different sections of the action.

A solely dialogue-driven scene can only sustain itself for so

long. So dont let any of your dialogue sense last longer than
three pages (three minutes); script Readers dont like them and
it shows a lack of professionalism about the arena you are
entering. Of course you will find exceptions, but most
individual scenes tend to last form between a quarter to three

Dramatic scenes are, if you like, the ideal scene, with a

beginning, middle and end though not all of this may be
shown on screen; you decide. These scenes advance your
overall plotline and illustrate character. They escalate the
already rising conflict in your story and reach a crisis point
followed by a climax.

Each dramatic scene contains:

Text (the business): what the characters are doing
Dialogue: what they are saying
Subtext: what is really happening beneath the surface
or apparent meanings of the action and speech
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Remember, in your script, every image, every piece of

description, and especially every line of dialogue must either:
advance the action of your plot, illustrate character, or
preferably do both. If it doesnt perform any of the above, you
should question whether it could be expressed in a better
(more visual?) way, or whether it need be there at all.

A scene is made up of two factors:

The general context
The specific content

The context consists of when and where your scene takes

place, i.e. location and time.

As for content, every scene reveals at least one element of

necessary story information to your audience. The
information it receives is the purpose of that scene. Even if
its just a bridging scene, it denotes we are moving to a
different location.

Tip: When you have written a scene, try editing out the
beginning of it and the end of it. Then, condense the
remaining information. Your scene may now be only half its
original length, but it should be twice as tight. If it isnt, cut

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front-and-back again, condense the remainder, and go on until
youre happy with it. Threat each scene as you would a party:
arrive late, depart early.

Creating a Scene

First create the context (the purpose, place and time) of your
scene, and then content will tend to follow. To create content,
ask yourself:
What happens in this scene?
What does each character in this scene want, want
to happen, or prevent happening by the end?
Where does the scene take place?
At what time does the scene take place?
What is the purpose of this scene?
Why is it there?
How does it move the story forward?
What happens in it to move the story forward?

It is important for you to know what happens within scenes (in

real time), but also what happens between scenes (omitted
time) which you choose not to show. Be aware that the
decisions you make regarding which scenes you choose to
omit can be as important as those you make about the scenes

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you decide to show. You leave out what the audience can
deduce. So ask yourself:
How did my character get from the end of that scene
to the start of this one?
What were they doing all the time?
While Ive been concentrating on characters X and Y
in this scene, what are the other characters doing
while this scene is being played out?
What are the other characters doing between the

You should know, too, why all your characters are in this
scene and how their actions or dialogue move the story
forward. If you dont know, who does?


The location you choose should help dramatize the events

taking place there; if it doesnt then its the wrong location.
Always look for conflicts: add tension by making something
difficult, and then more so.
Look for the unobvious, the most dramatic setting for
your scene. Look for the unobvious the original.
Note that a constricted location or controlled
environment (submarine, spaceship, airplane, tube
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train, car, warehouse, etc.) somewhere the character
cant escape from is highly dramatic.
Can you dramatize this scene against the grain?
Can you heighten the emotion by using weather and
the elements? Notice how many scenes of high
dramatic or emotional content take place in the
pouring rain. Rain is very dramatic as are gales,
thunderstorms, hurricanes, sandstorms, restless seas,


By creating context you determine the dramatic purpose of

your scene; you can begin to build that scene line-by-line or
action-by-action and create the content.
What aspects of this characters life
(professional/personal/private) will be revealed?
What is their goal in this scene? What do they want
to do or achieve? What do they want to happen or
prevent from happening?
Is there agreement? (If so, your scene ends and you
move on to your next scene).
Is there disagreement? If so is there conflict? What
is it? What type? Whats the subtext? Does the

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scene escalate the situation at the beginning of the
scene? (If so, move on).
Does this scene raise the stakes? In what way?
What has changed at the end of this scene from when
we first entered it?

Also ask yourself these questions about your characters

What is my characters general attitude within the
overall screenplay?
What is the characters attitude in this specific scene,
both at the start and by the end? Has it changed, and
if so, how?

Now ask yourself those last two questions in relation to each

characters status within that scene.

Lastly, ask yourself if this scene moves your protagonist a step

(large or small) nearer to their goal at the end of the
screenplay (and the sequence). How does it connect to that
Act III climax?

If it doesnt do any of these, drop it, no matter how brilliant it


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Crisis and climax

A dramatic scene is internally structured. It moves to a crisis

then a climax indeed, there may be a series of smaller
internal crises before the major scene crisis arrives.
Crisis is a moment in a scene that forces a decision
and causes a change in the character or story

After the crisis, the forces operating with the scene or act are
realigned. A major crisis, therefore, is a turning point.
Climax is a moment in a scene that resolves a crisis
one way or the other

Character revelation

In most scenes your character will discover something, realize

something or have something revealed to them. They will
gain knowledge. This will affect the storyline or their
character development, or both. The revelation may be
dramatic or merely significant; it depends on your story.

Scene causality

Understand that each scene causes the next one (more or

less) and, of course, events within a scene cause the

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subsequent incidents. Causality is an essential element in
constructing your screenplay; it helps you define or even
possibly construct your plot, and is a tool in creating powerful

Scene ends writing backwards

Just as it is important to know the end of your script, before

writing it and to know the end of each Act before entering it,
so it is equally important to know the end of your scene. Once
you discover the end of your scene you will probably find
yourself going back to rewrite it in the light of your new

Finally, consider the effect you create (or want to create) by

juxtaposing your scene with the previous or following scene.


Flashback is a technique of showing past happenings in order

to expand an audiences comprehension of the present story,
character or situation. Its very tempting to slip into
flashbacks in a script, but for the script reader it usually
suggests either sloppiness or problems in your script. Execute

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the story through action, not flashbacks; if you do use it, use it
sparingly and effectively. The same applies to flash forwards.

Upping the ante

To get the maximum emotion from a scene or moment of high

drama, you should:
Before a scene or moment of great joy o relief,
precede this with a scene or moment of extreme
tension or jeopardy
Before a scene or moment of great drama or heavy
tragedy, precede this with a scene or moment of
extreme release, fun or tranquility

Momentum: Building Tension

Almost every scene in your script should contain tension: it is

the energy that propels and sucks the audience through your
story. Tension is created when the audience hopes and/or
fears that something will happen to the characters.

At its simplest: tension = conflict + contrast. Opposites create

tension, (opposite forces, opposite characters and opposite
expectations) for your characters and audience; opposite

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expectations generate hopes and fears in the audiences

One of the most powerful ways of manipulating audience

reactions is via the dimension of future time and its inherent
uncertainties Whats going to happen next? Will it
happen? When will it happen? It is this future dimension
that allows you to affect the audience.


We anticipate something will happen either:

Because it has always happened (it is a normal
pattern of life, like the sun rising in the morning)
Because the screenwriter has established it as a norm
in the world of your script, or the norm in that
particular character
Creating surprise is one way of manipulating your audience
anticipation: this maintains audience interest by telling them
that things are unpredictable, that their expectations will not
normally be fulfilled. However, an audience cannot be
surprised by an event unless they anticipated a different event
taking place.

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Anticipation, like intention, must be completed: either
fulfilled, contradicted or interrupted. You cannot create
anticipations and then leave them hanging; loose ends
dissatisfy an audience, they feel cheated.


Suspense occurs when an audience becomes uncertain that the

goal of your character will be achieved, and it applies to the
screenplay as a whole. (You can also, of course, create it at
any point in your script.)
To have suspense you must have a character who
forms a need or intention that is vitally important to
From that need, the character conceives a goal
If the goal is easy to get then there is no suspense
because there is no uncertainty
For the goal to be uncertain there must be difficulties.
Not just any difficulties, but difficulties powerfully
challenging to the goal

Suspense is also created when we do not know the outcome of

a particular action. Here your audience is made to feel two
emotions, hope and fear:

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Hope that the outcome will occur (but fear that it
Fear that the outcome will occur (but hope that it

Hence suspense equals doubt. The choice you have is:

certainty of outcome vs. uncertainty of outcome.

A strong, clear goal is therefore vital: as well as helping

establish motivation, it gives direction and meaning to your
story and to the actions of your characters. If your audience
doesnt know the characters goal it cannot measure the
strength and quality of the difficulties and cannot know if they
are challenging enough to make the getting of the goal
uncertain or doubtful. And without uncertainty and doubt
there is no suspense. The audience must know the goal and
the difficulties in getting it.

Suspense starts when you have three ingredients, and not

An intention (setting a clear, strong goal)
Difficulties, especially a counter-intention, that
Uncertainty as to the outcome

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Note that suspense need not always be life threatening.


As in real life, the actual meaning lies behind the apparent

surface meaning. This is subtext what is being
communicated beneath the text lines or action; the real
meaning being conveyed, the real intent (conscious or
unconscious) of the character. For the writher, subtext
expresses the hidden agenda of a character.

What we dont see is often more effective that actually

showing something.

You can use subtext in a number of useful ways:

You can set an agenda for your plot and state to the
audience what the characters need to do. (Very
useful in thrillers, adventure, detective stories and
teen romances.) It allows you to believably put
together disconnected bits of information.
You can give the audience more information than the
protagonist knows, thus putting them in a superior
position. It lets the audience know about impending
disaster round the corner before we watch the
character/s turn the corner and confront it.

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You can pose a question that the audience and the
characters need the answer to.
You can establish obstacles, set up expectations in
the audiences mind of the problems your protagonist
will encounter. The drama comes from the
knowledge that we know these obstacles are waiting
to be confronted this is linked to the superior
position (above).
You can create an enigma by denying the audience
all the key information until the very last minute.
You can drop in tantalizing information and
unexplained moments that set up the subtext that says
implicitly if you stay with this long enough, it will
all become clear.

All the above are linked: you are creating expectations in the
audiences mind and thats why subtext works. Subtext can
be used as part of creating a deception: a character says one
thing but means another. Another character might not read
this subtextual meaning (although they may sense it), but the
audience must be aware of the subtext.

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Raising the Stakes

This means increasing the risk to your characters as they

progress through your screenplay, that is, the characters must
have something to lose, or something bad would happen to
them if they fail (or if they go through with their present
action). This risk personalizes the problem for them and,
through identification, becomes a problem for the audience.
Once again you are manipulating the audience through their
hopes and fears.

Suspense Plots

Suspense Plots use up only a tiny fraction of the script.

It keeps the audience with you

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While you concentrate on the emotional
consequences of the Suspense Plot's events.
It justifies the eruption of the emotional conflict.

Emotional Plots

Emotional Plots are why playwrights do what they do. This is

what the Suspense Plot allows you to spend your time on.
Since they take up about 90% of a play, the overriding
importance of Emotional Plots means that ...

Most playwrights assemble characters who have a shared -

and emotionally complicated -- past. And this is
usually a past that has been simmering beneath the surface
of their relationships for some time. The Inciting
Incident of the Suspense Plot provides the catalyst for this
simmering past to finally come to light.

Emotional Plots deal with the Emotional Consequences of

events -- usually the events forming the basis of the Suspense
Plot. While they take up most of the play, they're simple and
uncomplicated to describe

Can Maggie get Brick to love her again?

in Tennessee Williams' CATONA HOT TINROOF

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Can the three sisters learn to be supportive
in Beth Henley's CRIMES OF THE HEART
Why is there such emotional friction between the
Sergeant and his troops?
in Charles Fuller's A SOLDIER'S PLAY
What was the real basis for the emotional
relationship between the French diplomat and the
Opera performer?
in David Henry Hwang's M BUTTERFLY

Emotional Patterns

Emotional Patterns manipulate our emotional response to

the story's sequence of events. This manipulation heightens
audience response by deliberately alternating positive and
negative events, particularly during the Obligatory Scene
and Resolution.

The technique sounds more complicated than it is. The goal is

simply to present a sequence of events that puts the audience
through an emotional roller coaster. Remember the Hollywood
clich -- Nobody gets very excited if boy meets girl and just

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gradually makes progress until he gets the girl at the end. So
Lotus Land discovered the formula
Old Bill always knew

Boy doesn't have a girl.

We feel sad [for his sorry state].
Boy meets girl.
We feel happy.
Boy loses girl.
We feel glum.
Boy gets girl.
We feel
[Nobody ever said Hollywood wasn't sexist.]

This -- not surprisingly - is the simple-headed version.

Here's the real thing

Here's the sequence of the Emotional Pattern that lurks under

the Obligatory Scene of Lanford Wilson's THE FIFTH

The central character, Ken, doesn't have what he

thinks he wants.
We feel emotionally negative about his situation
because we'd like him to have what he does want.
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It looks like he may get what he wants.
And because this is what he wants, we feel
emotionally positive about his situation.
At the Climax it suddenly looks like he definitely
won't get it.
This reversal makes us feel emotionally negative
about his situation -- we feel badly for him.
And then ... It all works out for him. And nearly
everyone else.
Even better than we expected. And we feel extremely
positive emotionally about the outcome.

Obligatory Scene

The Climax comes as the cap of the Obligatory Scene. It's

Obligatory, because the audience wants to see it. They want
that final confrontation between the main characters in the
Conflict you set in motion with the Inciting Incident. Not only
do they want to see this final encounter, but they also want to
see it carried through to a Resolution. That's the job of the
Obligatory Scene.

Here's the simplest technical way to get the Obligatory

Scene started: Bring your two most opposing characters
face-to-face. And keep them there until this storm of
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Conflict breaks. But remember that you've had two
interconnected Plots cooking through your play. It's nearly
always the Suspense Plot that generates the Climax.

In the heat of that moment, one or more of the central

characters has their lives and relationships altered in some
meaningful way. And that's because the Climax of the
Suspense Plot triggers a lesser Climax in the Emotional Plot
within the next page or so.

Main Characters Come Face-to-Face

Building to
Climax of Suspense Plot
Triggering the...
Beginning of Resolution
Followed by
Minor-Climax of Emotional Plot
Leading to completion of


This is the final summing up of the Consequences of the

events that triggered the Conflict and the play all those
many pages ago. Even though the Climax is over, this is no

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time to relax. The Resolution is the last image audiences carry
away as they leave the theatre.

Resolutions can be very short. Marsha Norman's for 'NIGHT,

MOTHER has one 8-line stage direction followed by a single
line of dialogue. Of only seven words. These things are
practically never longer than a few pages. But of course --
here comes the exception

Wendy Wasserstein's THE HEIDI CHRONICLES runs an

entire 13-page scene plus 3 pages of the previous scene.
Now, that's a long Resolution. But she made it work. A
word of caution: hardly anybody else has pulled this off.

As you roll toward the end of the Resolution, resist the

temptation to tie everything up with a neat bow. That's just
Television tugging at your sleeve. Theatre gives you the
luxury of leaving some secondary issues for your audience to
work out on their own. Do it. Audiences like it and so will

Here's what Tennessee Williams left for the audience to work

out, after settling the overriding question in CAT ON
A HOT TIN ROOF: Who gets the money? Brick and his wife,
Maggie, do. And we also know that Brick is willing to have a

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sexual relationship again with his wife -- at least briefly. But
what we'll never know from the playwright is

What if Maggie doesn't get pregnant tonight?

Will Big Daddy care if he discovers Maggie lied to
him about being pregnant with Brick's child?
Can Brick really hang in there with Maggie for the
long term?


This is what you've been heading for since the Point of Attack
back in Act I. And odds are you've sensed what it would be
since the middle of Act II -- that peak of conflict and tension.
Conflict so intense, it has to snap. And at that moment of
snapping, one or more of your central characters has their lives
altered in some meaningful way.

It doesn't matter if you're writing a farce or a serious epic, the

Climax results from the same force and produces the same

The best thing to do with a Climax, is get out of its way. No

joke. By this point in the play, all of the forces of conflict
and tension you triggered with the Inciting Incident have
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been steadily narrowing your options and your
characters' options -- until the Climax is the only door left
for you. Or them.

Because of the high pitch of Conflict at this point, it's not

uncommon for some kind of physical action to mark the
Climax. You'd expect that with a murder mystery Suspense
Plot like Charles Fuller's in A SOLDIER'S PLAY. But it's not
required. In fact the Climax of most contemporary plays is
nothing but words -- often intense ones -- but still, words.

Some examples of both kinds

Maggie lies that she's pregnant.

in Tennessee Williams' CAT ONA HOT TINROOF
Peterson shoots Sgt. Waters.
in Charles Fuller's A SOLDIER'S PLAY
The Angel crashes through Prior's ceiling.
Peter confronts Heidi with her lack of
in Wendy Wasserstein's THE HEIDI CHRONICLES
George tells Martha their son has been killed.
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Babe tries to gas herself [comically] in the oven.
in Beth Henley's CRIMES OF THE HEART

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The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet : Structure Map
3 Acts / 8 Sequences

Act 1
Sequence A
Who, what, when, where and what conditions
[set-up (1-10)]

1. Scene 1 [opening image (1)]

2. Scene 2 [theme stated (5)]
3. Scene 3
4. Scene 4
5. Scene 5 [catalyst (12)]

Sequence B
Set up main tension, posing dramatic question
[debate (12-25)]

6. Scene 1
7. Scene 2
8. Scene 3
9. Scene 4
10. Scene 5 [break into 2 (25)]

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Act 2 A
Sequence C
First attempt to solve problem
[fun and games (30-55)]

11. Scene 1 [b story (30)]

12. Scene 2
13. Scene 3
14. Scene 4
15. Scene 5

Sequence D
First attempt fails, more desperate measures. First
[fun and games (30-55)]

16. Scene 1
17. Scene 2
18. Scene 3
19. Scene 4
20. Scene 5 [midpoint (55)]

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Act 2 B
Sequence E
Complication to first culmination. Glimpse of
[bad guys close in (55-75)]

21. Scene 1
22. Scene 2
23. Scene 3
24. Scene 4
25. Scene 5

Sequence F
No more easy options. Second culmination
[dark night of the soul (75-85)]

26. Scene 1
27. Scene 2
28. Scene 3 [all is lost (75)]
29. Scene 4
30. Scene 5 [break into 3 (85)]

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Act 3
Sequence G
Apparent or actual resolution
[finale (85-110)]

31. Scene 1
32. Scene 2
33. Scene 3
34. Scene 4
35. Scene 5

Sequence H
Resolution maybe w/ epilogue or coda

36. Scene 1
37. Scene 2
38. Scene 3
39. Scene 4
40. Scene 5 [final image (110)]

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The Screenplay Paradigm

Every ten minutes or every ten pages, YOU NEED ACTION

boom-boom-boom. Never let up. Always keep building,
especially in action/adventure scripts. You always have to top

Act I

Act I gives your audience all the ingredients from which your
story will be made: tone; problems; tension; love interest; the
timescale and any time locks. No important elements should
be introduced later than Act I.

Purpose: essential story information; introduce main

characters; establish conflict, tone, visual style, setting
(physical, social-psychological); build theme and mood

Elements: point of entry; critical life-crisis moment; time

frame; character-in-action; dramatic situation; time lock;
inciting incident; crisis; climax/TP1; raising the stakes;
character-audience identification

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Needs: information; correct dramatic arrangement of story

Dangers: lack of clarity and/or direction; insufficient

identification with protagonist; unclear who protagonist is;
character motivation vague

Have a compelling premise.
Make sure the reader can identify with your main
character and many of the supporting characters.
Most people dont identify with the rich, the mean, or
the stupid. So, in general, main characters tend to be
well-meaning members of the working class trying to
better themselves. If your protagonist must be a
billionaire, a gangster, a cheat, or some type of
inherently unsympathetic person, make sure he has
lots of redeeming qualities: kindness, amiability,
gentleness, humor, compassion, or eccentricity.
The only other way to go is to have your rich, mean,
unsympathetic protagonist become an underdog very
quickly by being stripped of his rank, and then
instantly hes become one of us and entirely more

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Dont introduce too many new characters too quickly.
Start with the main character, follow him, and end
with him. The rest of the characters are supporting
cast members. As you need to, have him meet the
rest of the players and we will slowly assimilate all
the people we need to know.
There must be a great deal at stake. In other words, is
there enough sense of magnitude?
Hook your audience with the dramatic problem of
your story.
Include an inciting incident.
Clarify the main characters goals, that which is at
stake as a result of this goal, and the necessity for the
character to achieve his or her goals.
Have a galvanizing moment that twists the story in a
new direction, forever changing the life of the main
character and launching us into Act II.
The genre must be clear. The key thing here is that
as the author you must know exactly how far you can
go within your genre. The tone must be nailed and
must be consistently followed throughout the story.

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1-10 Your first ten pages are critical. In the space of 10
pages you have to set up your scenario. Establish:
Who your main characters are, and especially
who your protagonist is
What your story is going to be about
The dramatic circumstances surrounding
your story
The genre you are working with
1 You start the story, giving mood and tone and place.

Sometimes you will find a prologue (or teaser scene)
situated pre-credits before your Act I starts.
Sometimes the teaser is run behind the opening
credits. This is a hook to grab the audience and/or set
the scene. The teaser is a useful device to quickly
establish the premise your story action will be based

3-5 Hook
The first thing a Reader looks for in a script is a hook
that something which grabs the audiences attention,
draws them into the story and makes them want to
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watch or read. Ideally, it needs to be in by page three,
certainly by page five.

Powerful confrontation between two strongly

contrasting characters will always hook your

Key Line
Also somewhere between pages three and five you
will need to pose the question you the writer are
asking in your script, the issue (personal or universal)
you are attempting to confront, explore and resolve
within yourself that is to say what the script is really
about and the reason you need to write this script. It is
to do with your theme. The issue is addressed in the
key line: it is spoken by a character and gives the
audience clues as to what idea will be explored in
your script.

Sometimes the key line is repeated towards the close

of the film (sometimes word-for-word), but slightly
changed in its meaning.

Repeated Images
Somewhere in the first half of Act I, it helps if you can

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establish a strong visual image of something that will
be repeated (echoed) near the end of your completed
script. When the image is repeated (usually slightly
changed) towards the end, it subconsciously indicates
to your audience that we are nearing the end of the
story. These two images act like bookends.

10- In the remaining 20 pages (20 minutes) of Act I, you

30 need to do a number of things:
Environment: fill out the background details
of the world your protagonist lives in.
Beliefs: illustrate by action your
protagonists code of conduct, their value-
Subplots: set them up.

The story must be established. Your dramatic

problem must be presented. The stakes are set up, and
the audience/reader cares.

10- Character-in-action
This section of the screenplay usually focuses on the
main characters-in-action (especially your
protagonist). This deepens their characterization by
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showing their character problem: a mixture of their
attitude and personality interacting with a specific
situation you have designed for them.

Moreover, this section also acts as a benchmark by

which the audience can measure character growth
(how your protagonist and main characters change
through Acts II and III, and at the end). Hence in this
section you should try and stay focused on your
protagonist in all or most of the scenes.
Remember, you illustrate by action, so your
protagonist has to be active this means making
decisions. Keep them active and you will keep your
audience engaged. And dont forget to start
establishing your major subplot, and any others you
feel crucial to your storys development.

20- By page 20 your character should have been fairly

30 well established; youve got most of the essential
character information out of the way and established a
benchmark. So as we move into the third ten pages
we are entering that section of the script that will lead
us up to the inciting incident and first climax.

23- Inciting Incident and Crisis (First Turning Point /

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28 TP1)
As we approach the closing stages of Act I, you will
have the Inciting Incident, also called the catalyst, plot
point, or problem. It creates a crisis that leads
inevitably to a climax (decision made).
A crisis is a moment in a scene that forces a decision
or choice that then causes a change in the character or
story. A major crisis (or Act crisis) and climax is a
turning point.
Your overall story will have two major turning points:
at the end of Act I and at the end of Act II (the
moment of truth). You will also have several smaller
turning points in your script, but these turning points,
TP1 and TP2, are fixed.

A turning point in a screenplay performs a number of

It grabs the story, turns it around and
catapults it in a direction by setting up a
problem that your protagonist must resolve
over the course of the screenplay.
It pushes the story forward towards the Act
climax (which will then push it into the next
It raises the stakes of the story, by pushing
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the story in a new and dangerous direction,
by making the achievement of the dramatic
need, goal or intention more uncertain. Note:
dangerous is relative to your screen story.
It is a crisis point that generates in the
audience a what are we going to do now?
It dramatically alters your protagonists
motivation (TP1 creates dramatic need, goal
or outer motivation).

Note: if a time lock has to be set, it will often be

established at the inciting incident.

Turning points always happen to your protagonist, are

character related, and caused by their actions
(remember: decision is action). Inevitably your
protagonist will react to that turning point in some
way: they will formulate a goal and intent to act as a

TP1 often occurs at a time when the story seems to be

over because of the apparent success of the

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Lastly, your crisis leads directly into your first climax,
at the end of Act I (which creates the momentum to
kick your story into the next Act). The climax is the
strongest and highest dramatic moment in your first
act. (In some instances you will find TP1 coinciding
with or even becoming the climax).

28- Act I Climax (reaction to crisis) transition to and Act

30 II
A climax occurs when a crisis is resolved one way or
another. Following the crisis of TP1, we now see
your protagonist (and main characters) reacting and
responding to it. Because the turning point has
transformed your protagonists original motivation,
their original goal has altered or been forced to alter.
Consciously or not they will be compelled to
formulate a solution, a new (generalized) goal and a
line of action they believe will lead them to that goal.
Remember, this is their external motivation what
your character must get or win by the end of the story
the thing that drives them through the script. The
formulation of this goal and the specific line of action
chosen must be strong and visible to the audience
(through not necessarily apparent to the protagonist),
and demonstrated by visual action. This

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climax/reaction creates the energy to finally push us
into Act II.

Note: the inciting incident does not necessarily have

to happen at this point. Sometimes it will even occur
earlier in the script. Indeed, a common debate is
where exactly does TP1 occur? at the inciting
incident? The crisis? The climax? In practice, you
will often find these three moments happening so
quickly after each other that they could all be
considered a collective turning point. What is agreed,
however, is that your two major turning points should
be at the end of Acts I and II. Whether you want to
see it as an inciting incident, crisis or climax is up to
you and your story.

Act II
Development (Conflict & Confrontation)

Purpose: develop story via conflict and confrontation, build

motivation line from dramatic need/goal; move character
through point of no return; orchestrate character
transformation and growth; advance story via upward
progression towards Act climax; maintain momentum

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Elements: build from strong TP1 and clear, strong set-up;
dramatic need/goal/external motivation; focus points; half-way
point; script mechanics (dilemma, obstacles, complications,
set-backs time lock); sequences; rising action; suspense;
scene causality; major crisis; TP2/moment of truth;
development of subplots

Needs: momentum; focus; powerful causality

Dangers: a very long section (for audience and writer); often

unstructured or understructured; may not have essential
incidents/scenes; a too-linear plot line (not enough
complications, set-backs, etc.); weak or false point of no
return; incidents not integrally and logically linked to central
problem and characters (i.e. lack of focus, weak causality)

This Development Act tell your main story, shows further

your characters in action, and shows the development of those
characters through their experiences. All the elements
introduced in Act I are now shown working with and against
each other: conflict, suspense, tension, action, adventure,
passion, romance, murder, mystery, and whatever else youve

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The nature of this Act, where the problem introduced by the
inciting incident is further developed through conflict, is that
your characters are operating on borrowed time, underpinned
by the existence and nature of the protagonists solution
decided on at the end of Act I. Being a bad or a false solution
(even though they dont realize it as such), your protagonist
will often find his or herself re-confronting their old problem,
though it may take on a new or slightly different shape. They
cannot escape the fact that their solution did not solve the
problem completely. The audience will of course understand
this better than the protagonist. This is the nature of putting
the audience in a superior position (we know something you
dont) and they know subconsciously that the protagonist will
have to deal with this problem at some point later in the film.

To get a clearer grasp of Act II, it will help if you see it as two
equal halves divided by the halfway point. In the first half of
Act II (Descent, pages 30-60), up to the halfway point (page
60), your protagonist progresses steadily forward in their
quest. But nothing moves forward except through conflict. If
all you have is exposition and explanation, things will get
boring and your story will lack momentum. Hence, you
should be building towards a setback. Indeed, you will
probably have two setbacks in this segment of the script: a

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minor one as you enter the Act and a more serious one at your
scripts halfway point.

Build your story. Take the stakes established in Act I
and raise them even higher. In addition, the conflicts
grow more and more intense.
Reverse expectations. In doing so, you should force
your protagonist to take greater risks.
Provide more and more interesting obstacles to
prevent him or her from achieving his or her goals.
Dont be boring. Dont be too talky. Keep a sense of
urgency and danger.
The dramatic problem must now represent something
larger than the protagonists life.
Keep a constant sense of danger, threat, and tension,
especially in the second act.

Your dialogue must not be overwritten. People rarely say

what they are thinking. When they do, its filtered; candy
coated, homogenized, and pared down to elicit a desired
response. More aptly put, people say the things they say to get
what they want, especially in film. All the genuine moments
involving the dialogue in your story have one thing in
common: theyre short. The logic here is simple. The less
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time it takes to make your point, the clearer it will be. It
forces the reader to notice. A slow rain inconveniences
people, but a flash flood gets their attention. Keeping that in
mind, remember that the dialogue cant be too on the nose.
Dialogue is a subtle business; be a little softer on the keys.
The protagonist must inevitably find himself worse off at the
end of the act than he was at the beginning. He must be at a
crisis point. What the hell should my main character do now?
That decision affects everything and always leads to

Your antagonist must have a clear master plan or agenda.

Many times we will take the time to clarify the goals, needs,
and desires of our main character, but well fail to clarify the
same for our antagonist. Your story is only as good as your
baddie; so dont forget to flesh them out. If you know the
complete agenda of the bad guy, what he is trying to achieve
and why, you can then plan the story accordingly.

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30- Act II, Part I (Descent)

30- A golden rule of screenwriting is: after a climax, give
45 your audience a breathing space, a pause moment or
scene for them to come down, assimilate that climax
and all that has happened.

Your protagonist has now fixed their general goal/s and

is back on track or so they think. There is soon a
minor setback but they overcome that and they move
steadily forward. Hence these fifteen pages are usually
ones of reaction/response and setting up by the writer of
incidents that will lead to further problems and
obstacles later in the story (relationships and
complications may begin here).

The B, C, D, or subplot story lines should have been

established by now. These subplots deal with the main
characters relationships, not the plot itself; for instance,
the best friend, the parent, the love interest that affects
the A story line but is not the driving force of the story.

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45 The First Focus Point
At approximately page 45 you will find a focus point
(also called focal or focusing point). This is a scene or
moment which:
Tightens the storyline action.
Reminds the audience of the problem.
Pushes the story forward helping to keep it on
track (and stopping the audience and the writer
from getting lost).
May indicate the first beginnings of character
change or growth in your protagonist.

By this stage we have seen some first indications that

the protagonist is changing or growing, for example a
moment or scene showing a kind of acceptance of the
new situation (i.e. your protagonist has adjusted to
preceding life-changing events, especially the
problem and TP1). It is a marker or beat in the
protagonists character transformation and growth. Up
until now they have probably been reaction to events
brought on by TP1. The first focus point (or FP1) now
sees them making a first significant active move
towards achieving their goal.

As with the two turning points, there are two focus

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points (the other comes at approximately page 75) and
they are usually related: what is
promised/foreshadowed/mentioned/indicated in FP1 is
often delivered in FP2. Hence the first focus point you
the writer need to design a scene that essentially
refocuses on the storyline.

45- This section sees your protagonist begin to fulfill the

60 line of action begun at TP1 and tightened at FP1. The
line continues onwards and upwards, almost
unhindered, because you are building towards your
halfway point, which will be a point of no return for
your protagonist. In other words, pages 45-60 sees:
The obstacles get tougher.
The protagonist gets stronger.
The protagonist approaches a point after which
they cannot quit.

Generally speaking, this segment in your main plot

restates the external problem. But we also see the
protagonist take their first decisive action towards
attaining the ultimate goal of the story. More
specifically, they will be moving towards the point of
no return/total commitment scene at the halfway point
(page 60).
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In your main subplot, this segment usually illustrates a

change taking place in your protagonist. Up till now we
have had an indication of that change, but now we are
focusing on it.

60 The Halfway Point

The halfway point or mid-point of your script
(approximately page 60), is your protagonists point of
no return, their scene or moment of total commitment.
Here, something happens which causes them to reassess
and consider giving up their quest or journey. Should
they give up or push on? Looking at your script
logistically, your character having come sixty pages, it
would take them the same time to give up the quest and
return to where they started (page 1) as it would if they
decided to continue the quest to page 120.

Unlike at other points in your script (i.e. at the end of

each act) this halfway point does not necessarily
involve any sort of climax or big action scene. But for
your protagonist it is a point of no return.

Its main purpose is:

To force the protagonist to reassess their quest.

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To make the protagonist consider giving up.
To make the protagonist then decide to
continue on (they must do this).
To make them formulate a new set of more
specific or focused goals.
To make them commit to that new goal totally
in a way they cannot back out of.

(Remember: we learn about our characters from the

decisions they make under pressure.)

The halfway point usually tells us something new,

something we didnt know before; it can also represent
a major moment of recognition for your protagonist,
where they recognize what is really going on,
particularly between themselves and the other main
characters. It also evolves and adds to the protagonists
motivation: anyone who reaches the point of no return
has, by definition, fewer choices open to them and are
compelled to adopt a specific line because they can no
longer quit or return home. Also, obtaining a
significant part of the solution to the problem adds
greatly to a protagonists motivation to remain on the
case; there are fewer options but they are now
addicted to finding the solution.
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After this halfway point the protagonist will hold to

their commitment and be driven along a certain course
because they have committed to that line in a particular
way. From now on your protagonist cannot return to
their former life and ways.

60- Act II, Part II (Initiation)

All that has been building up in Act II now starts to
crumble. Subplots come into play and may even play
themselves out, all pushing the main character down to
his lowest moment.

In ensuring scenes, the audience believes there is no

way the main character can get closer to death and still
escape, but the writer always seems to find a plausible
way out for the main character. Here is where you can
slow down a bit to explore characters, but be careful
you dont slow down too much.

Your protagonist, having made the decision to continue,

and with a new, more focused set of goals in place,
progresses onwards. But in this section the stakes are
raised, so that now more is at risk, more in danger of

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being lost (immediately, or in the long term). Raising
the stakes also shows us the enormity of what must be
committed in order to succeed.

60- In the section between pages 60 and 75, the direction of

75 your protagonist is very clear: they are holding to (or
being held to) that commitment made at the halfway
point. That point has added some element of
compulsion (from within themselves/other
people/outside events) where they are compelled to
choose more and more specific lines of action to
achieve their ultimate goal. The nature of character
motivation in film is not allowing your protagonist to
do what they want to do, but compelling them to do
what absolutely must be done.

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75 The Second Focus Point
This second focus point (FP2), at approximately page
75, performs many of the same functions as FP1 (at
page 45):
It moves the story forward.
It keeps it on track.
It pays off FP1 by delivering on some promise
or suggestion made at that earlier point.
It may add another significant clue to the
solution of the problem or mystery.
It tests your protagonists new growth.

This last function is the most important one.

Remember the FP1-FP2 linkage: if FP1

plants/indicates the beginnings of change in your
protagonist, then FP2 shows proof that they have indeed

The most interesting and engaging type of FP2 is where

your protagonist is tested to almost breaking point. The
audience must be gripped to genuinely believe that the
outcome could go either way.

Sometimes (actually quite often) after this second focal

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point you will have a long expository speech, usually
told in the form of a story to someone, which
illuminates the real reason for your protagonists
journey, his or her real inner-motivation. By now your
protagonist has probably recognized this inner
motivation, although it may be someone else who tells
the actual story.

75- Complications
The second focal point has tested our protagonists
growth, theyve come through it, and we are seeing a
new person. The audience now needs to see the true
(dramatic) vindication of this test and this vindication
lies in the second turning point (TP2), the moment of
truth and the climax to your second Act.

As with pages 20 to 30, this screenplay section is

principally concerned with setting up TP2. This is done
in two ways:
TP2 must be strong and well integrated and the
set-up for it clear.
At the same time, your protagonist will usually
experience a sense of failure just prior to TP2.

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This sense of failure is the crisis point for the whole
film story and is your protagonists crisis.

85- The Moment of Truth (Second Turning Point / TP2)

By the end of Act II your protagonist reaches that
second turning point (TP2) somewhere between pages
85 and 90 of the script. It is a major setback and forms
the second act climax (or leads directly into it). Here
they meet the biggest obstacle in the story, and are
defeated by it (although not permanently). This
immediate crisis for the protagonist will give them a
sense of failure, or having been abandoned or isolated,
and of having realized at last (and now being forced to
face the fact) that the decision or action taken at TP1
was false, weak, unprincipled or a terrible mistake.
Hence this turning point is called the moment of truth.

This creates a new and yet more powerful clarity of

purpose for the protagonist, a clearer goal, which
accompanies them as they enter Act III. Now, knowing
exactly who they are and having faced up to (and
possibly accepted) their bad decision or false solution
made at the first turning point, they are ready for the
final showdown at the end of Act III.

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TP2 (the moment of truth) performs the same functions

as TP1:
It involves the protagonist.
It leads logically to and causes the final
confrontation scene (and the final climax in

Remember that in Act I, just when we though the story

might be over, the inciting incident came along, created
or posed a problem, and caused the TP1, which then
spun the story off in a new direction. TP2 often occurs
when the story seems to be over for the opposite reason:
the protagonist has failed and despair has overtaken
them (not all films will follow this format follow the
demands of your story). At this precise moment there is
a breakthrough, a clue revealed, an inner strength found
or an action taken precisely because of the despair and
sense of having failed. It also creates the energy and
momentum to catapult us into Act III.

Resolution & Denouement

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Purpose: resolve story; heighten tension to climax; integrate
theme, unify story; final transformation and growth of
protagonist; bring story to satisfying close

Elements: build powerfully from TP2/moment of truth;

payoffs; key confrontational scene (protagonist vs.
antagonist); increase pacing

Dangers: momentum lost or weak; payoffs neglected; climax

unsatisfactory or disconnected from preceding build-up

Your Act III needs to do three important things:

Have a strong climax to the story action.
Resolve the problem or task and the relationships you
established in Act I.
Provide a satisfying ending.

This act should feel like a headlong rush to the finish. There
is no room for fluff here.

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Make the climax the biggest moment of your film.
You should know your climax before you start
writing and write backward. Once the end is
understood, the story merely becomes a filling in of
the beats that will lead inevitably to this moment.
You need a sense of resolution. Loose ends must be
tied together. But the key is to tie them in a way that
was not initially anticipated.
Remember, a clear resolution is the outcome of a
positive crisis decision that empowers your
protagonist to succeed at the climax. Your story
must force your protagonist to make the decision that
illustrates character transformation and provides a
stirring example of emotional growth.
Make sure you clearly define the rules of your world.
In your movie, you need to define your world early
and be consistent from then on.
Your ending must be consistent with your theme. Be
very, very careful when you get close to the end. The
end must be bigger than all the rest of the film. It
must come as the most emotionally powerful moment
of your film or else youre dead. And no matter
what, the way you choose to end your film dictates
the theme of your tale.
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90- Final Push and Climax

In Act III you have to tie up all your loose ends,
answer all remaining questions, show how the
characters have changed, show what has been
achieved or what disaster has struck and send the
audience away feeling however you want them to

So, as we enter Act III, your audience will be

experiencing that pause moment or scene after Act IIs
climax, thus giving your protagonist a chance to
regain their stasis, pull themselves together and go for
that one last do-or-die attempt. After that, from now
on, everything should accelerate towards that final

Your protagonist usually enters Act III with a greater

clarity of purpose about who they are (from FP2) and
knowing more clearly (usually for the first time) what
they really need to do (from TP2) hence a new and
clearer goal is usually formulated and chosen.

After the ending of Act I the protagonist had a general

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overriding powerful goal: what they believe they need
to get in the film. But the character goes through
transformation, and is challenged to grow. This has
consequences for the characters goal, because if they
change and grow, then so will the nature of their goal
the old goal no longer satisfies them. So they are
given a new goal at the halfway point and a yet more
focused goal at the moment of truth. Each time can
mean an alternative goal, or simply the old goal with
something added to it. The events of Act II have
almost led to complete disaster and to a sense of
personal failure in the protagonist. Indeed, the low
point that follows Act II climax is usually the
protagonists darkest moment in the script (hence the
moment of truth) a realization that comes only just
in time. Act III provides the area in which to redeem
these negative situations.

Note that in this final push segment you will often

find a chase not necessarily fast cars and screeching
tires but at least a pursuit of some kind.

Also note that pacing is very important in Act III: it is

the fastest-paced of all the acts, with more crises-per-
page and little let-up. In this segment, incidents will

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happen fairly quickly and lead inexorably to the final
climax. This is also why third acts are often built
around a single major sequence.

90- Here we have lots of cool, fast-paced scenes that push

109 the story to the climax, involving the resolution of
many subplots and building to one final resolution that
is the biggest of the whole story.

110- Final jeopardy. Everything comes to a head here. No

114 more uncertainty. Usually a heightened experience.
The main character and the antagonist have it out and
resolve the dramatic question of the story.

115- Final Climax

The climax happens between approximately pages 115
and 119 of the script. It is always a scene (sometimes
the final scene) in which the protagonist faces the
greatest obstacle of all the final confrontation with
the opposition and one of them wins, the other
loses (though not that by winning they may lose, and
vice versa). Whatever, this must be seen on-screen. It
cannot happen off-screen, or be reported. We want to
see it. And this climax must integrate three elements:

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Resolving the main plot.
Showing through action the new
transformation in the protagonist.
Playing out the theme of the script.

The climax caps off the process begun in Act I: a goal

was set but we often discover it was a false or
insufficient goal; at the end of Act II a truer goal was
set, but at the end of Act III a real or concealed goal is
It is important to understand that this climax is the
peak emotional moment of your screenplay (where
your theme comes forcefully into play).

Epilogue. Now, get out fast.

120 Fade Out. The End.

End of Act III: Resolution/Denouement

Having got over that final climax the biggest of your entire
screenplay you must again give your audience a chance to
come down from all that emotion. Your protagonist has faced
their biggest challenge and either won, or been defeated by it

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yet still won, or defeated by it and lost (although theyve
learnt something about themselves and therefore still won).

This tapering-off period in your script should also tie up all the
loose ends, and any subplots that have not already been
resolved in and by your final climax.

This is a moment (or moments) where your protagonist re-

evaluates their situation, of how life has changed for them, as
if they were setting up a new design for their new life to come
(after your screenplay ends). So your story needs to create a
sense of an afterlife: a feeling that the lives of the characters
go on after the story has finished, after your audience has left
the cinema. Hence the importance of creating fully three-
dimensional characters: if your characters haunt you the
writer, and live in your head after the writing is complete, then
youre on the right track.

Incidentally, dont forget that resonating visual image (and

possibly resonated key-line) near the end of your script, that
image or line that is similar to and relates to the one you set up
I your opening pages. Here it will be slightly changed or

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Finally, a fundamental consideration you must address: what

effect do you want to create on your audience after they have
experienced your screenplay?

Ideally, the audience should feel that there was a reason for
your film. They shouldnt be shaking their heads and asking
why the hell did anyone make that? Again, this comes
down to your ending, your theme and their integration.

The last 10 to 20 minutes of a film is often what most affects a

cinema-going audience. It is also where those vital three
elements of Act III all come together. The ending is where
your theme is integrated into the final action and often makes
sense of it it unifies the whole film. What this means in
practice is: your choice of ending and how it is played out
must be informed, influenced and symptomatic of your theme.

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Nine-Act Structure for Plot Development

This is a structure developed by David

Siegel to describe motion picture story

The body of Siegel's theory is in the nine

acts that make up a story.

Act 0 Back Story

Set up the plot elements in which the main

character will become involved.

Act Zero does not directly appear in the

story except in flashback and explanations to
show back-story. Here, writers need to set
up the disaster that is coming in the story.
Forces need to already be in motion before
the story begins in order to create conflict
for the characters. Usually the emphasis for
the back-story will be on the antagonist or
villain, but even protagonists carry baggage
into the story. He even goes as far as to

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suggest ten years of planning coming into a
collision course in the story.

Act 1 - Opening Image (The Panoramic

Crane Shot - 5 Minutes)

Act One is used to establish the physical

location and time period of the story. This
particular act is peculiar to script writing,
although other writers should be aware of
the need for a powerful beginning to any

Act 2 - Something Bad Happens (The

main antagonist sets the plot in motion - 5

In a crime story, it's usually the murder

Reveal the bad front man, but hold off on
the introduction of the bad head honcho
until later.

Start with an image. These are the opening

descriptions that set the tone and illustrate
the setting.

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Act Two is an immediate hook into the

story. Something bad has to happen, and
happen fast, in order to move things from
act zero into the main story. The conflict
starts, and the rest of the story follows.

Act 3Meet Hero/Protagonist - 15


Meet the hero (and the opposition) give

him 3 plot nudges to push him to commit.
This also includes objectives.

Act Three introduces the cast of characters,

including the protagonist and his or her
cadre, as well as establishing the villain and
his or her allies and flunkies. Character
development during Act Three is critical for
connecting with the audience. While the
development happens, events propel the
characters towards the next act.

Act 4Commitment (5-10 Minutes)

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The push - Usually one scene that's a door to
Act 5 - The point-of-no-return after which,
the character can no longer avoid being part
of the story to the end.

Act Four involves the protagonist

committing to the first goal. He may go
willingly into the situation because the
alternative is worse, or to help an apparent
victim. Under involuntary conditions,
someone may push the protagonist into the
situation, either for malicious reasons or for
the character's own good.

Act 5 - Go for wrong goal (The

protagonist goes for the obvious objective
- Approx. 30 minutes)

A series of 8-12 min. cycles called

whammies or complications followed by a
rest period of 5 minutes or so to uncover
some of the back-story. End this act with the
lowest point for the protagonist. The dark

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Act Five finds the protagonist pursuing the
wrong goal. This act, the longest of the
group, is where the complications of the plot
pile up. Back-story issues, mysterious
strangers, and events; all point out that the
protagonist is on the wrong track, and the
villain is winning. This act ends when the
protagonist realizes he is going after the
wrong goal, usually at the villain's peak in
the story.

Act 6 - Reversal (5-10 Minutes - Usually

70 Minutes into the Film)

The protagonist finally puts together the

clues and realizes there's something else that
needs to be done.

The last clue discovered - Now Act 2 makes

sense - It is the low point, a history lesson
usually revealed by the bad guy/honcho -
but reveals the Achilles heel of the nemesis

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Act Six is the pivotal point when characters
will go after the new, accurate goal. The
characters get that final clue, the missing
piece to the puzzle, which allows them to
make the necessary changes to successfully
complete the plotline.

Act 7 - Go for New Goal (15-20 Minutes)

The hero now goes after the correct solution,

which is very difficult and doesn't go as

The clock is ticking - Hero has a new plan.

The action seesaws back and forth with
nemesis and hero gaining & losing ground
between each other - usually takes place in
24 hours within the context of the movie.
Favors are repaid, magic, good luck
happens. The new plan is kept secret. New
goal is achieved.

Act Seven doesn't go well even though the

new goal is the correct one. While the
protagonist will usually win out over the

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villain by the end of this act, the victory
comes at a price. Nothing is free.

Act 8 - Wrap it Up (5 minutes)

The effects of the resolution are played out.

Back to where it all began - a feeling of

accomplishment & rebirth - the world

Act Eight wraps everything up, ties up loose

ends, and sends audience members on their
way with the emotions the writer wants
them to feel. This act is short, sweet, and to
the point.

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Screenplay Manuscript Format

Be careful in using the screenplay

manuscripts on the shelves of your local
library. These will nearly always be
shooting scripts. They'll be full of specific
shots, camera movement and angles -- the
sort of thing accomplished
screenwriters don't waste time on. The tip-
off that you've got a shooting script in your
hands: each shot is numbered
down the left margin.

Here's the format by the numbers, courtesy

of the folks who bring you the Oscars ...

Top Margin: 0.75" - 1.0"

Bottom Margin: 0.5" - 1.5"
o Left Margin: 1.5" - 2.0"
o Right Margin: 1.0"
o Left Margin: 3.0"
o Right Margin: about 2.3"

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Character Stage Direction
o Left Margin: about 3.7"
o Right Margin: about 3.0"

Character Stage Directions are placed

directly under the Character NAME or
between the lines of dialogue of a single
speech. Most playwrights use this kind of
s.d. sparingly. If you're averaging more than
one per page, you're probably cluttering up
the dialogue with unnecessary noise. As
with everything else in manuscript Format,
the visual structure is designed for ease of
reading. In this case: clearly separating stage
directions from dialogue.


Doing nothing is the brass ring in

this business.

Save Character Stage Directions for those

moments when you have an overwhelming

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need to tell us what the dialogue can't.
Here's what they're good for

Physical action to be done as the

line is being spoken:

(Filling the glass)

Action implying the equivalent of a

(Pause) s.d.:

(Shaking her head)

Tone of voice or emotional quality

of the line:


Clarifying who the line is said to

when more than two characters are
on stage:

(To Joan)

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Character Stage Directions are very brief
Odds are you should use a separate Stage
Direction if ...

They're not finished when you hit

the right margin.
They describe more than one
physical action.
They state what a different
character is doing.

A NOTE ON TITLES: Center the Title in

quotes at the top of page 1 of the body of
your script. This is in addition to the Title

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Screenplay Structure: Three Acts & Five

Youve heard of the one-act play. And if

youve ever watched Law and Order,
youve seen a five-act TV show. So whats
all this talk about a screenplay in three acts?
Arent the number of acts ultimately up to
the screenwriter? Well, the truth is that
almost every movie youve ever seen was
constructed in three well-delineated acts.
Some filmmakers take greater pains to
disguise their act breaks, but trust me,
theyre there, bubbling beneath the witty
banter and gravity-defying stunts. ET moves
into Elliots house? Act break! Guido visits
his mothers grave in Fellinis 81/2? Act
break! Derek Zoolander retires from the
world of professional modeling? You got
ita big old obvious act break. So what
makes an act? How should screenwriters
divvy up their genius into easily digestible
chunks? Here are a few ideas to get you

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ACT I: The first act of a screenplay is
usually 2535 pages long. The first 10
minutes should present the normal world
of your filmbefore everything goes
haywire. The end of Act I should be a point
of no return. Usually something is taken
away from your protagonist, and they can
never go back to the way things were. They
have no choice but to continue into Act II.

ACT II: It can be helpful to think of Act II

as two parts Act 2a and Act 2b. Act 2a is
usually about 30 pages long. This is the part
of the film where your protagonist is
reacting to the pressures of their changed
world. Act 2b begins when your
protagonists worst fears nearly come true.
After that, they sit up and say wait a
minute! I can handle this! They stop
reacting and take control of the situation.
Act 2b can be short: Even 15 pages long. It
ends when the plot ensnares your
protagonist and propels them toward a
mini-climax. This is a high point for your

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protagonist. Everythings working out as
sweet as a Sunday ham

ACT III: Reality returns at the beginning of

Act III when your protagonists false victory
is immediately undone by a huge setback.
This is their all is lost moment. The
Ghostbusters go to jailtheir gig is up! But
wait, whats that you say? A call from the
mayor? New York needs the boys in grey
and their radioactive weaponry? You got it.
After all is lost, your protagonist will
usually receive some new information. They
see the light, and will now race toward the
resolution of their journey. And yours!


Okay, you get the three acts! But flip open

any book on screenwriting, and youll find
all sorts of other terms like tent pole,
galvanizing moment, and turning point.
These are all plot points, or specific places
within your acts in which specific things

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usually happen. Do you have to adhere to
these points? Heck no. Should you? Ask Syd
Field. Here are five points, however, that I
pay attention to:

1) Page 1. Most of us write scripts with the

intention that someone else will one day
read them. If thats not you, skip this note!
For the rest of us, page one will be some of
the most important writing/revising you do.
Here is your chance to capture your readers
interest and pull them into a world of your
creation. Usually, the rule of thumb is to go
light. Dont inundate your reader with too
much description. Get into your characters;
show us some dialogue! Give the reader no
option but to flip that page.

2) Inciting Incident. Okay, this ones

important. The inciting incident is the event
that sets everything in motion. If E.T. hadnt
been left on earth, the movie would have
stopped right there. No Elliot, no phone
home, no nothing. The inciting incident

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should usually happen in the first five pages
of your script, and should demand
resolution. Thats what your scripts about
resolving the inherent conflict of your
inciting incident.

3) Page 17. Next time you watch a DVD,

pause it 17 minutes into the film. Trust
meany film. Whats happening at that
point in the story? Most likely, the essential
character conflict has just been laid out. A
teenage Indiana Jones runs to his father for
help, but is shushed instead. Shaun
convinces his girlfriend to trust him in
Shaun of the Dead. Captain Renault asks
Rick why he came to Casablanca. On page
17, your audience should realize what the
film is really about. Its not about finding
the Holy Grail, Indyits about learning to
forgive dad!

4) Climax. The !#%& has gotta hit the fan

sometime! Usually it happens two-thirds of
the way into Act III. Your protagonist has

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just experienced an epiphany, and is now
ready to confront your antagonist. Its the
big showdown! Its mano-a-mano (or
womano-a-womano)! Ghostbusters vs. Stay-
Puft. This is your protagonists moment of
truth, and when its all over they will have
either lost or won.

5) THE END. Oh, to be there already. That

special day when you pound these six letters
into your computer as if it were an old-
fashioned typewriter. THE END is
everything its cracked up to be. Relief.
Regret. Rejoicing. Reflection. Youll feel it
all at this crucial moment in the process.

But wait a minute. How the heck are you

gonna wrap this thing up?

There is no right way to finish a script. In

many ways, its one of the most personal
and idiosyncratic parts of screenwriting.
These days, the convention in America is for
scripts to end with a twisteven dramas

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will pull the rug out in the final pages. Good
endings tend to provide definitive answers to
the following three questions. What those
answers are, however, is up you. Here are
the questions:

1) Was the inherent conflict of the inciting

incident resolved? (E.T. is on the space

2) Was the essential character conflict

defined on page 17 resolved? (Indy and Indy
Senior ride into the sunset together)

3) How is the protagonist different now than

from the beginning of the film? (Theres
more important things than male
modelinglike love, and helping kids who
cant read good.)

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Screenplay Structure the PROPPER Way

Russians love folktales there are thousands

of them! So, way back in the 1920s a
Russian writer named Vladimir Propp began
to analyze hundreds of them and looked for
common structures, themes and story
sequences. He compiled his results in a
rather unexciting, (out-of-print) book called,
Morphology of the Folktale."

He was able to identify thirty one specific

story units which he called, narratemes. You
may ask, whats an eighteenth century
Russian folktale got to do with your
screenplay? Maybe a lot!

For example, broad, cinematic epics like the

Star Wars" saga, Gone With the Wind," or
Lawrence of Arabia" follow Propps story
design almost exactly. Maybe youre not
writing an epic and many of Propps
narratemes wont apply to your screenplay,
(and several narratemes dont apply to
contemporary drama at all) but you can use

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this as a good starting point and check list of
what may be missing.

The first seven narratemes introduce the

initial story situation: who, where, when,
how and why.

1. Somethings Missing: Someone,

(or something) is missing or is in
danger in the lead characters,
(heros) world.
2. The Warning: The hero is
cautioned: You are too young,
inexperienced or weak." A
challenge or warning.
3. Violation: The antagonist disturbs
the peace, poses a threat. Can be a
real or perceived danger.
4. Reconnaissance: The antagonist
often wants to know where the
children or a precious object are
5. Delivery: The antagonist obtains
useful information which he may
use against the protagonist.

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6. Trickery: The antagonist tries to
fool the hero in order to steal
something of value or threaten
someone important to the
7. Complicity: The hero falls for it
hook, line and sinker and
unwittingly helps the antagonist.

Now, the story really begins! In folktales the

hero would leave on his/her quest by the end
of this next sequence of narratemes.

8. Villainy and Lack: The antagonist

threatens or harms someone
important to the hero, or something
else which affects others is
suddenly missing.
9. The Challenge: The hero
discovers, or is informed of the
lack" and is requested, or feels
obligated to help.
10. Counteraction: The protagonist,
(as any hero would) chooses to

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accept the challenge or assignment
despite the clear danger.
11. Departure: The hero leaves and is,
(often accidentally) joined by
another character known as the
helper" or provider."

In the next sequence, the hero sets out on

his/her quest. He/she may or not get
assistance from the helper," (which may
secretly be working for the antagonist) but
the heros goal is clear at this point.

12. The Test: The protagonist is soon

challenged, either by the helper,"
or someone else needing assistance,
(but not necessarily the antagonist).
13. Reaction: Our hero responds
positively and bravely to the test,
but may or may not succeed at this
14. Acquisition: In a folktale the hero
may obtain a magical object as a
result of his actions. In
contemporary dramas, he learns a

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skill or obtains important
information. As a result, other
characters may offer help.
15. Transport: Usually, the hero must
travel to another location to reach
his goal where he is unwelcomed or
will be in danger.
16. Confrontation: The hero and
antagonist fight. This may not be
the climactic battle and the hero
may lose this round.
17. Injury: The hero is injured,
marked," or set back in his quest,
but not mortally wounded.
18. Victory: Our hero beats the bad
guy, but his victory may only be
temporary and actually strengthen
the antagonist.
19. Resolution: The initial lack" may
or may not have been fixed, but
someone is rescued or something is
returned through the direct efforts
of the hero.

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In many stories this might be the storys end
as our hero returns and all is well. However,
Propp provides an additional story
possibility. Many of his suggestions are
optional from now on.

20. The Hero Returns: The hero

leaves the place he initially went to
for his quest and heads back home.
21. Pursuit: The hero is chased by the
antagonist who tries again to kill
him or take back what the hero has
22. The Rescue: The hero narrowly
escapes, often through the
assistance of the helper," or due to
a new skill or moral realization.
23. Back Home: Our hero gets back
home but he/she is unrecognized or
must hide from danger.
24. The False Claim: Because the
hero appears absent, others may
spread false rumors or question his
heroic character.

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25. The Difficult Task: This is a direct
challenge to the hero who must do
something which seems impossible,
(i.e., get the golden fleece, fight a
26. Task Performed: The protagonist
proves again his mettle by
accomplishing the impossible task.
27. Recognition: The protagonist is
acknowledged by someone who is
important to the hero. He has
proved himself.
28. False Claim is Exposed: The false
hero is usually revealed as a direct
result of the hero having performed
the impossible task.
29. Acknowledgement: The hero is
seen in a new light and his heroism
is recognized by everyone else.
30. The Hero Wins: The bad guy is
vanquished by the hero in a
climactic battle, usually in physical
combat. The false hero is often
punished as well.

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31. The Hero Returns: In folktales the
hero usually marries a beautiful
princess and ascends the throne. In
contemporary screenplays the hero
gets the girl and his character has
been changed forever.

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The Stages of the Heros Journey

The Heros Journey is a pattern of narrative

identified by the American scholar Joseph
Campbell that appears in drama,
storytelling, myth, religious ritual, and
psychological development. It describes the
typical adventure of the archetype known as
The Hero, the person who goes out and
achieves great deeds on behalf of the group,
tribe, or civilization.

1.) The hero is introduced in his/her


Most stories ultimately take us to a special

world, a world that is new and alien to its
hero. If youre going to tell a story about a
fish out of his customary element, you first
have to create a contrast by showing him in
his mundane, ordinary world. In WITNESS
you see both the Amish boy and the
policeman in their ordinary worlds before
they are thrust into alien worlds the farm

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boy into the city, and the city cop into the
unfamiliar countryside. In STAR WARS
you see Luke Skywalker being bored to
death as a farm boy before he tackles the


The hero is presented with a problem,

challenge or adventure. Maybe the land is
dying, as in the King Arthur stories about
the search for the Grail. In STAR WARS,
its Princess Leias holographic message to
Obi Wan Kenobi, who then asks Luke to
join the quest. In detective stories, its the
hero being offered a new case. In romantic
comedies it could be the first sight of that
special but annoying someone the hero or
heroine will be pursuing/sparring with.

3.) The hero is reluctant at first.


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Often at this point the hero balks at the
threshold of adventure. After all, he or she
is facing the greatest of all fears fear of the
unknown. At this point Luke refuses Obi
Wans call to adventure, and returns to his
aunt and uncles farmhouse, only to find
they have been barbecued by the Emperors
stormtroopers. Suddenly Luke is no longer
reluctant, and is eager to undertake the
adventure. He is motivated.

4.) The hero is encouraged by the Wise

Old Man or Woman. (MEETING WITH

By this time many stories will have

introduced a Merlin-like character who is
the heros mentor. In JAWS its the crusty
Robert Shaw character who knows all about
sharks; in the mythology of the Mary Tyler
Moore Show, its Lou Grant. The mentor
gives advice and sometimes magical
weapons. This is Obi Wan giving Luke his
fathers light saber.

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The mentor can go so far with the hero.
Eventually the hero must face the unknown
by himself. Sometimes the Wise Old
Man/Woman is required to give the hero a
swift kick in the pants to get the adventure

5.) The hero passes the first threshold.


The hero fully enters the special world of the

story for the first time. This is the moment
at which the story takes off and the
adventure gets going. The balloon goes up,
the romance begins, the spaceship blasts off,
the wagon train gets rolling. Dorothy sets
out on the Yellow Brick Road. The hero is
now committed to his/her journey and
theres no turning back.

6.) The hero encounters tests and helpers.


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The hero is forced to make allies and
enemies in the special world, and to pass
certain tests and challenges that are part of
his/her training. In STAR WARS the
cantina is the setting for the forging of an
important alliance with Han Solo and the
start of an important enmity with Jabba the
Hutt. In CASABLANCA Ricks Caf is the
setting for the alliances and enmities
phase and in many Westerns its the saloon
where these relationships are tested.

7.) The hero reaches the innermost cave.


The hero comes at last to a dangerous place,

often deep underground, where the object of
the quest is hidden. In the Arthurian stories
the Chapel Perilous is the dangerous
chamber where the seeker finds the Grail.
In many myths the hero has to descend into
hell to retrieve a loved one, or into a cave to
fight a dragon and gain a treasure. Its

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Theseus going to the Labyrinth to face the
Minotaur. In STAR WARS its Luke and
company being sucked into the Death Star
where they will rescue Princess Leia.
Sometimes its just the hero going into
his/her own dream world to confront fears
and overcome them.

8.) The hero endures the supreme


This is the moment at which the hero

touches bottom. He/she faces the possibility
of death, brought to the brink in a fight with
a mythical beast. For us, the audience
standing outside the cave waiting for the
victor to emerge, its a black moment. In
STAR WARS, its the harrowing moment in
the bowels of the Death Star, where Luke,
Leia and company are trapped in the giant
trash-masher. Luke is pulled under by the
tentacled monster that lives in the sewage
and is held down so long that the audience
begins to wonder if hes dead. IN E.T.,

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momentarily appears to die on the operating

This is a critical moment in any story, an

ordeal in which the hero appears to die and
be born again. Its a major source of the
magic of the hero myth. What happens is
that the audience has been led to identify
with the hero. We are encouraged to
experience the brink-of-death feeling with
the hero. We are temporarily depressed, and
then we are revived by the heros return
from death.

This is the magic of any well-designed

amusement park thrill ride. Space Mountain
or the Great Whiteknuckler make the
passengers feel like theyre going to die, and
theres a great thrill that comes with
surviving a moment like that. This is also
the trick of rites of passage and rites of
initiation into fraternities and secret
societies. The initiate is forced to taste

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death and experience resurrection. Youre
never more alive than when you think
youre going to die.

9.) The hero seizes the sword. (SEIZING


Having survived death, beaten the dragon,

slain the Minotaur, her hero now takes
possession of the treasure hes come
seeking. Sometimes its a special weapon
like a magic sword or it may be a token like
the Grail or some elixir which can heal the
wounded land.

The hero may settle a conflict with his father

or with his shadowy nemesis. In RETURN
OF THE JEDI, Luke is reconciled with both,
as he discovers that the dying Darth Vader is
his father, and not such a bad guy after all.

The hero may also be reconciled with a

woman. Often she is the treasure hes come
to win or rescue, and there is often a love

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scene or sacred marriage at this point.
Women in these stories (or men if the hero
is female) tend to be shape-shifters. They
appear to change in form or age, reflecting
the confusing and constantly changing
aspects of the opposite sex as seen from the
heros point of view. The heros supreme
ordeal may grant him a better understanding
of women, leading to a reconciliation with
the opposite sex.


The heros not out of the woods yet. Some

of the best chase scenes come at this point,
as the hero is pursued by the vengeful forces
from whom he has stolen the elixir or the
treasure.. This is the chase as Luke and
friends are escaping from the Death Star,
with Princess Leia and the plans that will
bring down Darth Vader.

If the hero has not yet managed to reconcile

with his father or the gods, they may come

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raging after him at this point. This is the
moonlight bicycle flight of Elliott and E. T.
as they escape from Keys (Peter Coyote),
a force representing governmental
authority. By the end of the movie Keys and
Elliott have been reconciled and it even
looks like Keys will end up as Elliotts step-


The hero emerges from the special world,

transformed by his/her experience. There is
often a replay here of the mock death-and-
rebirth of Stage 8, as the hero once again
faces death and survives. The Star Wars
movies play with this theme constantly all
three of the films to date feature a final
battle scene in which Luke is almost killed,
appears to be dead for a moment, and then
miraculously survives. He is transformed
into a new being by his experience.

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The hero comes back to the ordinary world,

but the adventure would be meaningless
unless he/she brought back the elixir,
treasure, or some lesson from the special
world. Sometimes its just knowledge or
experience, but unless he comes back with
the elixir or some boon to mankind, hes
doomed to repeat the adventure until he
does. Many comedies use this ending, as a
foolish character refuses to learn his lesson
and embarks on the same folly that got him
in trouble in the first place.

Sometimes the boon is treasure won on the

quest, or love, or just the knowledge that the
special world exists and can be survived.
Sometimes its just coming home with a
good story to tell.

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The Archetype

ARCHETYPES are recurring patterns of

human behavior, symbolized by standard
types of characters in movies and stories.


Central figures in stories. Everyone is the

hero of his or her own myth.


Villains and enemies, perhaps the enemy

within. The dark side of the Force, the
repressed possibilities of the hero, his or her
potential for evil. Can be other kinds of
repression, such as repressed grief, anger,
frustration or creativity that is dangerous if it
doesnt have an outlet.

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The heros guide or guiding principles.

Yoda, Merlin, a great coach or teacher.


One who brings the Call to Adventure.

Could be a person or an event.


The forces that stand in the way at important

turning points, including jealous enemies,
professional gatekeepers, or your own fears
and doubts.


In stories, creatures like vampires or

werewolves who change shape. In life, the
shapeshifter represents change. The way
other people (or our perceptions of them)

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keep changing. The opposite sex, the way
people can be two-faced.


Clowns and mischief-makers, Bugs Bunny

and Daffy Duck, Richard Pryor and Eddie
Murphy. Our own mischievous
subconscious, urging us to change.


Characters who help the hero through the

change. Sidekicks, buddies, girlfriends who
advise the hero through the transitions of

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As with any formula, there are pitfalls to be
avoided. Following the guidelines of myth
too rigidly can lead to a stiff, unnatural
structure, and there is the danger of being
too obvious. The hero myth is a skeleton
that should be masked with the details of the
individual story, and the structure should not
call attention to itself. The order of the
heros stages as given here is only one of
many variations the stages can be deleted,
added to, and drastically re-shuffled without
losing any of their power.

The values of the myth are whats

important. The images of the basic version
young heroes seeking magic swords from
old wizards, fighting evil dragons in deep
caves, etc. are just symbols and can be
changed infinitely to suit the story at hand.

The myth is easily translated to

contemporary dramas, comedies, romances,
or action-adventures by substituting modern
equivalents for the symbolic figures and

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props of the hero story. The Wise Old Man
may be a real shaman or wizard, but he can
also be any kind of mentor or teacher, doctor
or therapist, crusty but benign boss, tough
but fair top sergeant, parent, grandfather,
etc. Modern heroes may not be going into
caves and labyrinths to fight their mythical
beasts, but they do enter and innermost cave
by going into space, to the bottom of the sea,
into their own minds, or into the depths of a
modern city.

The myth can be used to tell the simplest

comic book story or the most sophisticated
drama. It grows and matures as new
experiments are tried within its basic
framework. Changing the sex and ages of
the basic characters only makes it more
interesting and allows for ever more
complex webs of understanding to be spun
among them. The essential characters can
be combined or divided into several figures
to show different aspects of the same idea.
The myth is infinitely flexible, capable of

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endless variation without sacrificing any of
its magic, and it will outlive us all.

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Where I disagree with the Heros Journey

The Heros Journey transformed my

storytelling but there is one area where I
diverge from Chris Voglers thinking and
thats on Character Arc.

Back in 93 when I was living in LA, I was

at a very low point in my life. For a start, I
was living in LA. But then someone gave
me a book that totally altered my
understanding of story. That book was Chris
Voglers The Writers Journey.

Why the Heros Journey does it for me

I like the Heros Journey because it wasnt

invented by some Hollywood hack rather
its a story pattern that was identified by
mythological guru, Joseph Campbell, after
gathering and exploring the great enduring
stories from all cultures across all time.

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I like the Heros Journey because if your
Muse is with you it can help you deliver
the kind of emotionally powerful films that I
want to write and audiences want to see.

And I like the Heros Journey because its

incredibly flexible. In my screenwriting
courses, I cite hundreds of examples of great
films that consciously or unconsciously
use the Heros Journey structure: from Dead
Poets Society to Groundhog Day; from
Schindlers List to Brokeback Mountain;
from Little Miss Sunshine to The Kings

But theres one thing Vogler says that I

simply cant agree with. And thats his take
on the Character Arc (page 205 in the Third

What Vogler says about Character Arc

Heres Voglers Character Arc mapped to

the 12 stages of the Heros Journey:

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1. Ordinary World Limited
awareness of problem
2. Call to Adventure Increased
3. Refusal of the Call Reluctance to
4. Meeting with the Mentor
Overcoming reluctance
5. Crossing the first threshold
Committing to change
6. Tests, Allies & Enemies
Experimenting with first change
7. The Approach Preparing for big
8. The Ordeal Attempting big
9. Reward Consequences of the
10. Road Back Rededication to
11. Resurrection- Final attempt at big
12. Return with the Elixir Final
mastery of the problem

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In short, Vogler says that your protagonist
should evolve gradually in incremental steps
from the start of the film to the end. He
rationalizes it this way:

A common flaw in stories is that writers

make heroes grow or change, but do so
abruptly in a single leap because of a single
incident. Someone criticizes them or they
realize a flaw, and they immediately correct
it; or they have an overnight conversion
because of one shock and are totally
changed at one stroke. This does happen
once in a while in life, but more commonly
people change by degrees, growing in
gradual stages from bigotry to tolerance,
from cowardice to courage, from hate to

Chris, I owe you so much and I cant thank

you enough, but Im afraid I categorically
and passionately disagree with you here.

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Why I disagree with Vogler on character

It's Phil Connors' flaws that make him funny

and he'll make no attempt to address them
until Rita (Andie MacDowell) gives him a
good slapping at the Ordeal.

In the films that I love most dearly,

protagonists do not change gradually by
degree. In fact, theyll do anything they can
to avoid making any change until they have
no choice until they are confronted with
that flaw, generally by the antagonist, at the
Ordeal (or midpoint in Classical theory).

Take Todd (Ethan Hawke) in Dead Poets

Society. He cowers in the shadow of his
high achieving brother and hides behind
the apron of his room-mate Neil (Robert
Sean Leonard) until Mr. Keating (Robin
Williams) confronts him with his greatest
fear around the middle of the second act in
the famous sweaty tooth madman scene.

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Theres no gradual change. Hes
transformed and credibly transformed in
that one scene.

Take Phil Connors (Bill Murray) in

Groundhog Day. Trapped in Punxsutawney
on Feb 2, he uses his special knowledge to
steal from armored cars and bed the local
talent like Nancy from Mrs. Walshs English
class. He is making no attempt at change,
indeed he is looking to add another notch to
his bedpost shame it will be gone in the
morning when Rita (Andie McDowell)
confronts him with his flaw. Slap! I could
never love someone like you because youll
never love anyone but yourself. Slap, slap,
slap, slap, slap. Before it, hes hugely
flawed. After that scene, hes a changed

Take Zack Mayo in An Officer and a

Gentleman. Hes looking after number one
until his mentor/antagonist, Foley (Lou
Gossett Jr) tells him that This isnt about

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flying jets. This is about character. Zack
enters the scene as a selfish loner and
emerges realizing that if hes to make it
through the program and succeed at life
hes going to need to move from being
focused on the self to thinking about others.
The change happens in one scene.

Why your characters change shouldnt

be gradual

There are 2 reasons why I would discourage

you from having your characters change
gradually as Vogler recommends:

Matt Dillon's Officer Ryan is a racist bigot

in Crash - but it's precisely this flaw - and
the contradiction that he's a loving son - that
make him interesting. Don't make the
mistake of having your characters address
their flaw too early.

Firstly, characters tend to be most

interesting when they are most flawed.

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Miles (Paul Giamatti) in Sideways. Rick
(Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca. Officer
John Ryan (Matt Dillon) in Crash. If these
guys start losing their edge early in Act 2,
they start getting boring. This is particularly
important in comedies where youre
laughing precisely because the hero is
flawed. Phil Connors at the start of
Groundhog Day is hilarious because he is so
egotistical, so arrogant, and the writers
thankfully keep him flawed as long as they
can because once hes transformed hes
almost sickly sweet.

The second reason I dont think that your

characters should address their flaw too
early is that it diminishes the conflict and the
emotional power of that confrontation scene
Ive described above and which I explore at
length in my post on the midpoint/ordeal.

If the character is already aware that he has

a problem and has made some effort to
change, the antagonist doesnt have as much

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at which to aim and the protagonist has
much less distance to travel. The emotion
we feel when we watch these pivotal scenes
comes from seeing someone being dragged
kicking and screaming out of their flawed
state and into enlightenment. Why does it
affect us? Because, as humans, we know
how difficult it is to change.

You might say that this massive and sudden

change is not representative of life. I would
say that its not unrepresentative of life.
Very often, its only a massive confrontation
that will change peoples behavior. A heart
attack convinces someone to eat healthily,
take up walking and give up the cigars. A
jail term convinces a junkie to give up the
gear. The loss of a career, wife and family
convinces a guy to give up the

I would also say that, in the end, Im not

trying to replicate life on the screen. Im
trying to tell a story that resonates for the

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audience, and delivers the emotional power
for which they shelled out their hard-earned.
Incremental change doesnt produce that;
sudden and radical transformation does.

That doesnt mean the hero should keep

hitting the same beat

Although I dont believe the protagonist

should address their flaw until they have this
confrontation at the Ordeal, that doesnt
mean that your hero should be making the
same mistake, over and over again, until the

In Groundhog Day, even though Phil

Connors wont address his flaw until Rita
(Andie MacDowell) has slapped him half a
dozen times, he doesnt keep doing the same
thing. In the 1st sequence of the 2nd act, he
makes new friends in the bar and tests his
powers by playing chicken with a train. In
the 2nd sequence of the 2nd act, he conquers
(and proposes to) Nancy, safe in the

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knowledge she wont hold him to it in the
morning. In the 3rd sequence, he goes for
the grand prize Rita and meets his

Nothing infuriates me more than characters

who do the same things over and over again,
which explains why Easy Virtue was such a
frustrating experience. Larita (Jessica Biel)
and Mrs. Whitaker (Kristin Scott Thomas)
have the same fractious conversation, again
and again and again.

And just because I dont think the hero

should begin addressing their flaw before
the Ordeal, that doesnt mean that you cant
reveal some redeeming qualities in the
interim. For example, Officer Ryan in Crash
is shown to be not just a horrendous racist
but also a loving son. Miles in Sideways,
when he talks about Pinot Noir and
unconsciously describes himself, also gives
us a glimpse of the sensitive, loving man
trapped within that frustrated author. And

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after his father, King George V, dies Bertie
(Colin Firth) in The Kings Speech opens up
to Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and finds his first
real friend. But in each of these films,
despite these scenes which reveal a softer
side to the hero, the flaw goes unaddressed
which means the potential for drama at the
Ordeal remains undiminished.

In the films that I love, the protagonist

doesnt begin to address their flaw until after
the Ordeal, but, before we reach that point,
the writers find fresh ways to dramatize the
heros flaw or to reveal warmer dimensions
that are a counterpoint to the characters
more obvious failings.

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A new character-driven Heros Journey

In my last post, I revealed my debt to Chris

Vogler and where I diverge from him on
Character Arc. Here I outline a new
character-driven Heros Emotional Journey
that might help dispel notions that this
amazing paradigm doesnt apply to female
protagonists, intimate dramas or romantic

The Heros Journey outlined in Chris

Voglers book The Writers Journey is the
single most important thing Ive learned as a
screenwriter. It totally transformed my
understanding of story and I think every
screenwriter should read it. However, there
is some resistance to the Heros Journey and
I can understand why misconceptions have

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Myths about the Heros Journey

There are a couple of complaints I

commonly hear about the Heros Journey.
One is that is only applies to male
protagonists. The other is that it might work
if youre developing a Star Wars sequel but
not if youre writing an intimate drama. Ive
never labored under either of these
misconceptions hell, I write romantic
comedies but its not hard to see why
people might form these opinions.

Off-putting warrior metaphors

The Hero's Journey is just as applicable to

female protagonists like Juno as it is to
"warriors" like Luke Skywalker or Indiana

Vogler stands on the shoulders of

mythological guru, Joseph Campbell, so its
not surprising that he uses terms like Call
to adventure, Supreme Ordeal and

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Approach to the Inmost Cave to define the
12 steps of his Heros Journey. However,
its easy to see why these warrior metaphors
might lead people to believe the paradigm
would only be appropriate for testosterone-
addled protagonists on a quest to find the
Holy Grail (or a misplaced groom).

Plot-driven rather than character-driven

One of the reasons Ive always loved the

Heros Journey is that the transformation of
the protagonist is bound into the paradigm.
If you understand the Heros Journey, and
apply its principles, its impossible not to
have your hero altered by their odyssey. And
the emotional power of a film depends
almost entirely on the size (and the
credibility) of that transformation. However,
if you were put off by the terminology, its
easy to understand why you might walk
away thinking that the Heros Journey
valued plot over character.

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Where I disagree with Vogler on
character arc

This is Chris Vogler's view of the character

arc in the Hero's Journey. He advocates the
protagonist changes from the beginning. I
think it's preferable to delay addressing the
flaw until Step 8 The Ordeal.

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In that last post, I detailed why I disagree
with Vogler on character arc. In summary,
Chris says that the character should be
evolving from the beginning of the story,
whereas in most of the films I love this
doesnt happen. The hero doesnt address
their fundamental character flaw until
theyre forced to at Step 8 The Ordeal
around the midpoint of Act 2. I prefer to
delay this transformation because flawed
characters tend to be more interesting (and
funnier), and postponing the change leads to
much greater conflict and emotion in that
confrontation scene.

A new character-driven Heros Emotional


Over the last couple of years, whenever I

teach my Introduction to Screenwriting
course, I have been augmenting the 12 steps
of the Heros external journey with what I
consider to be the 12 steps of the Heros
Emotional Journey. Ive done this because

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the longer Ive been a screenwriter the more
Ive realized its not about the plot. The
plots just there to make the character
uncomfortable. What its really about for the
character and the audience is not the
External Plot but the internal Emotional

Hopefully the Heros Emotional Journey

might help dispel common misconceptions
about the Vogler paradigm and allow a
much broader range of writers to benefit
from the amazing insights of Joseph

In fact, to emphasize the point that the

Heros Journey is equally applicable to
dramas and romantic comedies, I generally
only show one clip from an action-adventure
film and thats the scene from Raiders of
the Lost Ark where Marion kisses Indiana.

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The 12 Steps of the Heros Emotional

1. Incomplete (Ordinary World)

2. Unsettled (Call to Adventure)
3. Resistant (Refusal of the Call)
4. Ambivalent (Meeting with the
5. Committed (Crossing the first
6. Disoriented (Tests, Allies &
7. Inauthentic (The Approach)
8. Confronted (The Ordeal)
9. Reborn (The Reward)
10. Desperate (Road Back)
11. Decisive (Resurrection)
12. Complete (Return with the Elixir)

Lets explore this new character-driven

Heros Journey in more detail

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Step 1: Incomplete (Ordinary World)

The incompleteness of the Hero will

generally have two dimensions: something
theyre aware of, and something of which
theyre entirely oblivious.

Bridget Jones thinks she's "incomplete"

because she doesn't have a bloke but her real
problem is her superficiality.

The incompleteness of which the hero might

be aware will generally be a Want.
Theyre not happy with their lives and
theyre convinced that getting this thing will
fix it.

Miles in Sideways wants to get his semi-

autobiographical novel published. Thelma
wants to spend a weekend away from her
dorky husband with gal pal, Louise. And, as
Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) sculls
wine, watches Frasier and sings All by

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myself, you get the strong sense that what
she thinks is missing from her life is a fella.

However, while it might be important for the

Heros external journey to establish this
incompleteness of which theyre aware, it is
at least as important to make your audience
aware of an inadequacy of which they will
almost certainly be unaware: their flaw.

If we dont establish the character failing of

the hero or we dont start them off at a
sufficiently low point the transformation
isnt going to deliver any emotional power
in the 3rd act.

The climax of Dead Poets Society has a 17-

year old schoolboy (Ethan Hawke) standing
on a desk and saying Oh, captain, my
captain. How can that possibly move us in
the way it does? Because the writer, Tom
Schulman, makes Todds flaw abundantly
clear in the Ordinary World sequence.

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In Casablanca, Rick (Humphrey Bogart)
says I stick my neck out for no-one, in
Moonstruck, Loretta (Cher) is going to
marry a man she doesnt love, and in
Tootsie, Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman)
is not only impossible to work with, he is
insincere with woman. All of these great
films build their narrative foundation by
establishing in the first very first sequence
of the film, that the hero is incomplete.

Step 2: Unsettled (Call to Adventure)

In Winter's Bone, Ree's "adventure" is to

find her loser, crank-dealing father or lose
her home.

Im comfortable with the term Call to

adventure and I use it rather than inciting
incident but that word adventure might
discourage writers of dramas from thinking
that the Heros Journey has something to
offer them. This adventure doesnt have to
involve guns, high-speed chases or some

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mystical medieval text. It can just be a
problem or an opportunity.

Like in Winters Bone, for example. Ree

(Jennifer Lawrence) needs to track down her
crack-merchant father for the rent money, or
she, her younger siblings and incapacitated
mother will lose their house.

The emotional effect of this Call on the

protagonist will depend on whether they
want this adventure or not. Indiana in
Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ned (William Hurt)
in Body Heat and Olive (Abigail Breslin) in
Little Miss Sunshine are all thrilled to get
the call so theyll be excited.

But, more often, the Hero doesnt want the


Bertie (Colin Firth) in The Kings Speech is

resistant to the unusual techniques, not to
mention the impertinent manner, of Logue
(Geoffrey Rush); in Toy Story, Woody

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hardly welcomes Buzz Lightyear with open
arms; and Juno (Ellen Page) isnt thinking
about the miracle of creation when her third
pregnancy test confirms the positive reading
of the previous two. If the hero doesnt want
the call, theyre going to be disturbed at
least, and quite possibly entirely mortified.

Whether the hero wants the call or not, its

fair to say that in either case theyre going to
be unsettled. Suddenly their world just
isnt the same any longer.

Step 3: Resistant (Refusal of the Call)

It needn't be the hero who is "resistant". In

The Social Network, it's Zuckerberg's buddy
Eduardo who questions the wisdom of
comparing Harvard women to farm animals.

No surprises here. In the Refusal of the Call

sequence, the Hero or those around them
are going to be resisting the invitation to

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If the hero doesnt want the call, they might
try to rationalize their refusal by saying they
cant afford to go, they dont have the time,
that this person is totally wrong for them,
that its impossible or crazy, but basically
theyre just afraid. And the audience loves
that because fear is something that we all

Luke Skywalker is too busy doing chores to

save the Rebel Alliance, Bridget Jones is too
superficial to appreciate the charms of Mark
Darcy (Colin Firth) and Richard (Greg
Kinnear) would rather stay at home and
preach about his 9-step Refuse-to-Lose
program than take his daughter to Redondo
Beach for the finals of Little Miss Sunshine.

If the hero does want the call, others will

express the fear for them. Eduardo in The
Social Network, the heros sister in Lars and
the Real Girl and Zacks alcoholic whore-
chasing father in An Officer and a

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Gentleman all express reservations about
what the hero is about to do.

But, regardless of whether the hero wants

the call or not, the emotion that needs to be
conveyed to the audience at this stage of the
Journey is resistance.

Step 4: Ambivalent (Meeting with the


The Meeting with the Mentor is one of the

most misunderstood phases of the Heros
Journey. In some films, yes, the hero does
meet with a Mentor figure at this point. Obi
Wan in Star and Mr. Keating (Robin
Williams) in Dead Poets Society are classic,
older and wiser mentor archetypes who help
their novitiates overcome their fears to go on
the journey.

In Moonstruck, the "ambivalence" is

expressed by father Cosmo, who says
Loretta shouldn't marry the "idiot" Johnny

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Cammareri, and mother Rose who thinks
she's wise to marry a man she likes rather
than loves.

But the Hero isnt always getting

encouragement from an avuncular sage in
this sequence so I think the terminology can
be misleading.

For me, a better way of thinking about this

phase is to see it as a time where the
audience hears the evidence for and against
going on the journey. If the hero wants the
call, well be hearing why they should
ignore it. If the hero doesnt want the call,
well be hearing why they should honor it.

In The Kings Speech, Bertie doesnt want

to work with this weird Antipodean speech
therapist. But having been reminded by his
father, King George V, of the importance of
broadcasting for the modern monarch and
having been given no help or sympathy in

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dealing with that Bertie is forced to
reconsider Logue over there in left field.

In Tootsie, Michael Dorsey has no desire to

dress up as a woman to get work as an actor.
But after his agent tells him that no-one will
hire him because hes too much trouble, he
decides to audition for the part his girlfriend,
Sandy, missed out on.

In Moonstruck, Lorettas father, Cosmo,

says she would be crazy to marry Johnny
Cammareri whereas her mother, Rose asks
her, Do you love him, Loretta?.

Oh, no, Ma.

Good. Because when you love them, they

drive you crazy because they can.

Weve heard two opposing points of view

from characters whose grey hair suggests
theyre mentors, but only one of them can be

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right. The story will prove to us that its
Cosmo, for all his failings, whose advice is
closer to the mark.

Dont get hung up on this mentor thing. For

credibility reasons, the hero will often be
confronted with some sort of authority
figure in this sequence. But, if you think
about it in terms of an ambivalence of
presenting the reasons for going vs. the
reasons for staying I think youll find the
appropriate scenes for this stage of the

Step 5: Committed (Crossing the First


In the previous sequence, the hero weighed

up their options. Now, in this last phase of
Act 1, they finally commit to the Journey.

In Star Wars, Luke takes up the challenge

thrown down by Obi Wan after discovering
his Aunt and Uncle have been murdered.

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In the ensemble Little Miss Sunshine,
Dwayne only commits to join the trip to
Redondo Beach after he gets clearance to
apply for flight school.

In Little Miss Sunshine, Dwayne agrees to

join the trip to Redondo Beach after his
mother tells him she will let him apply to
flight school.

In The Kings Speech, Bertie listens to the

phonograph recording he had previously
viewed with derision and is amazed to hear
himself speak for the first time without a
stammer making him think that perhaps
this Logue character might know what hes
on about after all.

Sometimes the hero wants to commit to the

journey but they need to convince a
Threshold Guardian to let them go on the
adventure. Michael Dorsey desperately
needs this job on a daytime soap even if it
means dressing up as Dorothy Michaels

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but first hes got to convince the
misogynistic director, Ron.

Some protagonists, like Roger Thornhill

(Cary Grant) in North by Northwest, don't
have a whole lot of choice about going on
the adventure.

And sometimes, the hero doesnt really get

to decide whether they go on the journey. In
North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill (Cary
Grant) has no choice but to go on the run
and try to clear his name after hes wrongly
believed to have killed a delegate at the
United Nations.

Similarly, in Groundhog Day, a visit to an

out-of-his-depth psychiatrist in
Punxsutawney convinces Phil Connors that
his problem is not in his head and he must
make the best of a bad situation.

Whether the hero is thrilled about it or not,

after step 5 of the Heros Journey, the hero

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is committed to tackling the goal, problem
or opportunity with which theyve been

Step 6: Disoriented (Tests, Allies &


Logue disorients the Duke of York by

forcing him to come to his rooms and by
impertinently calling him "Bertie".

This step of the Heros Journey is quite a

mouthful, but its one of the simpler stages
to understand. Remember how scary that
first day at school was for you when you
were 5 or 6? In this first sequence of Act 2,
your hero is similarly disoriented.

In their Ordinary World, the hero might

have been incomplete, and they might not
have been entirely happy, but at least
everything was familiar. Now, as soon as
they begin to pursue their goal or fix their
problem, their world is turned upside down.

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The hero can be forced to deal with changes
in terrain, as Bertie is in The Kings Speech
when hes forced to leave the familiarity and
safety of his palace and come to Logues
unusual professional rooms.

The protagonist will often have to go

through a change of appearance, as Zack
does when he gets his locks shorn in An
Officer and a Gentleman.

Different rules might exist in this Special

World, as they do in Groundhog Day, or Yes
man, where suddenly he has to say yes to
any proposal, including a geriatric
neighbor's excessively generous method of
thanking him for helping her around the

Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) "tests"

his Dorothy Michaels disguise on agent,
George Field (Sydney Pollack).

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Their powers might be different, as they are
in Bruce Almighty.

As a screenwriter, youre always looking for

conflict, so youll often want to challenge
your disoriented Hero with some sort of

In Tootsie, this happens when Michael goes

to the Russian Tea Rooms and tests out his
Dorothy disguise on his agent. This not only
gives us a good laugh at Georges expense,
it satisfies an important credibility question:
if his agent cant see that its Michael when
hes less than a meter away, Dorothy is
ready to fool the American viewing public.

In Meet the Parents, Greg (Ben Stiller) is

subjected to a lie detector test by his father-
in-law from hell (Robert DeNiro).

In Little Miss Sunshine, the test happens

when the clutch gives out on their Kombi
and threatens to end their trip when its only

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just begun. But, this still dysfunctional
family combine to jump-start the car,
solving the immediate problem, and
beginning their healing process.

You need to be careful with this test that you

leave yourself room to escalate the tests at
the Ordeal and Resurrection (or Climax). So
in Groundhog Day, when Phil Connors
drives along the railway tracks, he pulls off
at the last minute. Later, hes going to push
the Punxsutawney envelope a little more

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, R.P.

McMurphy takes a shine to stammering
Billy Bebbit and an instant dislike to Nurse
Ratched (the hair can't have helped).

But, possibly the best way to disorient the

hero is by having them try to work out who
they can trust and who they should be wary
of in this new world again just like you did
at school.

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In One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, R. P.
McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) quickly bonds
with Martini (Danny Devito) and works out
that Nurse Ratched is public enemy number
one. The Chief is initially impenetrable but
he falls into the archetypal category of a
Shapeshifter: he doesnt appear to be an ally,
but ultimately hes going to be the go-to

Shapeshifters are particularly useful in

thrillers and film noir because they disorient
the audience, forcing them to engage with
exactly the same question the hero is
grappling: is this character friend or foe?

Again, dont get hung up on the

terminology. If you just think about your
hero as being disoriented, youll be alive
to the wonderful comedic and dramatic
possibilities of this first sequence of Act 2.

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Step 7: Inauthentic (The Approach)

This is a tricky sequence to nail in terms of

the emotional journey of the Hero.

You could consider them to be amiable,

given that this is often where friendships are
forged. For example, in The Kings Speech
this is where Bertie opens up to Logue after
his fathers death about the mistreatment he
suffered at the hands of his nanny and his

You could consider them to be amorous,

given that this is where many love interests
are introduced. For example, in Witness, this
is where John Book (Harrison Ford) and
Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) dance in the
barn in a scene dripping with sexual subtext.

Phil Connors in "inauthentic" mode with


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So, why have I characterized it as
inauthentic? Because in the next sequence,
The Ordeal, youre going to confront your
hero with their flaw, so in this sequence I
think its a good idea to remind the audience
of exactly what the heros character failing

One of the best examples of this is

Groundhog Day, where Phil beds and
proposes to local Punxsutawney girl and
Lincoln High grad, Nancy. At this stage,
hes not interested in using his special
powers to help anyone. Why? Because his
flaw is that hes selfish. So in this sequence
we see him being entirely inauthentic.

When I say inauthentic, I dont just mean

that hes saying things that he doesnt feel. I
mean that there is a gap between how the
character presents to the world their
identity and who they really are their

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In The Kings Speech, even though Bertie is
being open with Logue in this sequence
where their friendship is forged, there is still
a yawning gap between how Bertie presents
to the world and who he really is.

His identity is that hes the bumbling,

stammering younger brother of the dashing
heir to the throne, David, but in truth Bertie
has qualities that will serve the nation better
than that flibbertigibbet. But he wont get to
offer those abilities, or be comfortable with
himself, unless he has the courage to find his

Yes, the Approach sequence can involve

rehearsal and reconnaissance and romance,
but if you want to write an emotionally
engaging film, Id encourage you to
consider how to reveal that the character is
being inauthentic. If you do, youll be
perfectly placed to exploit the drama of this
next sequence.

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Step 8: Confronted (The Ordeal)

Vogler calls this stage The Supreme

Ordeal but Ive known students to form the
impression that this means its the moment
of greatest drama in the story. Thats not
what Chris intended so I just refer to it as
The Ordeal.

Ennis (Heath Ledger) is "confronted" in

Brokeback Mountain when Jack (Jake
Gyllenhall) refuses to accept his continued

However, when I teach the Heros Journey,

its the clips from this stage of the journey
that produce the greatest emotion in the
class. And in an earlier post on the midpoint,
Ive written at length on why this is such an
important stage in the character arc. In
summary, its where the hero is
confronted with their flaw.

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Up until now, the hero wont have addressed
their flaw because they havent had to. Not
only have they done nothing about it but
theyve possibly been exploiting it. But here
they reach an impasse because here someone
often an antagonist or mentor/antagonist
holds a mirror up to the hero and says, Here
you go, pal, take a good long, hard look at
yourself. Not pretty, is it?!?.

This is where, in the great films, the

inauthentic identity the hero has been
presenting to the world will crack and
crumble away, revealing for the first time
their true essence.

In Tootsie, its where Julie (Jessica Lange)

throws a glass of water in Michaels face
because hes using the same inauthentic
patter on her that he was in the opening

In Groundhog Day, Phil is using the same

inauthentic approach on Rita that worked on

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Nancy, but every time hes on the verge of
the Promised Land, she gives him a good

In Brokeback Mountain, Jack (Jake

Gyllenhall) finally calls Ennis (Heath
Ledger) on his inauthenticity, telling him
hes no longer willing to get by on a few
high-altitude fucks a year.

In The Kings Speech, this is where Logue

tells Bertie that the nation needs him in its
hour of need not the distracted, Nazi-
apologist David and Bertie calls him
treasonous. But thats just a rationalization,
because, as in all the great stories, the hero
has just been confronted.

Step 9: Reborn (The Reward)

Having been confronted with their flaw at

The Ordeal, the old, flawed Hero will have
died, and a new, reborn Hero will emerge
in this sequence.

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After the "sweaty-tooth madman" scene,
Todd's shy, retiring identity crumbles away
and he is "reborn" as the hero who will
literally take a stand at the moving climax of
Dead Poets Society.

If theyve been cowardly, theyll now

display courage. If theyve been selfish,
theyll now demonstrate compassion. But,
more importantly, their transformation will
be revealed through the fresh perceptions of
those around them.

In Dead Poets Society, after Todd has

revealed the lyrical poet inside his diffident
shell, Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) looks at
him in awe and Keating says to Todd,
Dont you forget this. He doesnt.

In An Officer and a Gentleman, after Zack

has finally shed his insouciant wise-guy
identity in the Ive got nothin else scene,
he makes Perryman feel like a heel because

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hes shined his belt buckles and boots. Son
of a bitch.

In Groundhog Day, this is where Phil finally

stops trying to seduce Rita and instead talks
lovingly about her you like boats, but not
the ocean in a way that suggests he
genuinely cares for her, rather than viewing
her as just another conquest. Rita can see the
change and responds to it.

Good cinematic storytelling is about

squeezing and releasing your audience, and,
after the drama of The Ordeal, this sequence
definitely is about lifting the foot off the
pedal a little.

In The Kings Speech, this is where we have

the delightful if apocryphal scene where
Bertie and Liz visit Logue and his wife at
home. Its comedic and warm and gives the
audience a breather before the tension that
lies up ahead.

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If youve just put your hero through a
confronting Ordeal, in this sequence try to
lighten the mood and through the reactions
of those around the Hero, reveal that this
character has been reborn.

Step 10. Desperate (Road Back)

In the last sequence, the Hero was feeling

pretty good about themselves because theyd
just climbed their personal Everest, but in
this sequence they have a daunting
realization: now theyve got to get down.

This is where some complication occurs that

makes the attainment of the Heros original
goal seem much more difficult or downright

But its not just about plot. Its not just about
being in a dire situation. If you want to tell a
great story, at this point it can help to
present the hero with a dilemma to put
them between a rock and a hard place.

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In Billy Wilder's The Apartment, C.C.
Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is forced to choose
between advancing his career and honoring
his love for Miss Kubelik.

In an earlier post, I explore this crisis in

great detail, but in summary its about
forcing the Hero to choose between what
they want and what they need.

Very often, the choice is between a material

goal and love.

In Tootsie, Michael reaches the point where

he has to choose between what he wants
paid work as an actor and what he needs
Julie. He cant have both.

In Moonstruck, Lorettas fiance, Johnny,

returns from Sicily here, which means that
shes soon going to have to choose between
marrying a man whom she merely likes, or
taking a risk on love again with his more
passionate brother, Ronny.

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In Billy Wilders sublime The Apartment,
C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has to choose
between continuing to allow his boss (Fred
McMurray) to use his apartment for his
trysts or becoming a mensch and taking
a stand in honor of his love for Miss Kubelik
(Shirley Maclaine).

In Strictly Ballroom the choice that Scott is

presented with here is not about love but
about integrity. If he dances the Federations
steps, hell win the prize hes always
coveted but feel nothing. If he dances his
own steps, hell not win but hell gain a
greater prize the fulfillment that comes
with genuine self-expression and integrity.

Not every film offers up this sort of

dilemma. But, if you dont force your
character to make a choice, you have to ask
yourself how your hero is going to prove to
us that they have been transformed. If all
they do is get what they always sought,
without sacrifice, without compromise,

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youre heading towards a hollow conclusion.
I would suggest The Fugitive, after a
brilliant opening, falls into this trap.

So often is the hero faced with a choice at

this point that for a time I referred to this
step as conflicted. But, to make the
paradigm more universal, because the
combination of the dilemma and other
obstacles generally make this the Heros
darkest hour, I now think that the place you
want to take your character is desperate.

Step 11: Decisive (Resurrection)

This is it showtime. This is where the

dramatic question that was raised in Act 1 is
finally answered. More importantly, its
where we discover whether the Hero will
take this opportunity to prove to us that they
have indeed been transformed by their

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In When Harry Met Sally, the pessimistic
protagonist decides that maybe fancying a
woman and being friends with her aren't
mutually exclusive after all.

Its not about winning and its not about

saving the Heros arse. They cant be
rescued by external forces because that
would deny them their ultimate character
test. (Date Night makes this mistake.)

Thats why I call this climactic sequence

decisive. It demands that the hero be the
active agent that they make the choice that
determines whether they are going to draw
on the better part of their humanity or fall
back into the weaknesses of the past.

In Schindlers List, Oscar, having amassed

the wealth he sought at the beginning, now
chooses to use it to save the lives of his
Jewish workers.

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In North by Northwest, mummys boy,
Roger Thornhill, chooses to ignore his
chance to escape and instead go to try and
save Eve Kendall up on Mt Rushmore.

In When Harry Met Sally, Harry chooses to

shed his pessimism about male-female
relationships and run to Sally on New
Years Eve because when youve decided
you want to spend the rest of your life with
someone, you want the rest of your life to
start as soon as possible.

But just because the Hero is decisive, it

doesnt mean the ending has to be happy.
It just has to be satisfying, which it can be if
the Hero loses the external battle but wins
the more important personal war with their

At the end of Thelma and Louise, the

protagonists perish but the audience goes
with it because spiritually the two leads have

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In Brokeback Mountain, Ennis chooses to
go to Jacks parents to collect his ashes (and
his shirt) in an act that admits for the first
time that the love of his life was a fellow

In Dead Man Walking, Matthew Poncelet

(Sean Penn) chooses to confess to his crime
so despite the fact that hes executed, we
feel an incredible sense of catharsis.

In Thelma and Louise, they choose to drive

off that cliff because, though their flesh may
perish, their souls are free to soar (and this is
coming from a devout atheist).

Give your protagonist a choice at the Act 2

Turning Point, and if theyre decisive at
the climax and prove to use that theyve
been changed by the journey, theres every
chance youll pull off a moving finale.

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Step 12: Complete (Return with the

Ennis is aching at the end of Brokeback

Mountain but it's a soaring finale because
his character is wiser (and it's got a cracking

When you watch the 100m Final at the

Olympics, you dont go home after the race
is run. You stay for the medal ceremony.
Thats what this sequence is all about.
Weve just witnessed some heroics at the
climax; now we want to stick around to soak
up those overwhelming emotions.

When we first met the hero back in their

Ordinary World, they were incomplete.
Rick Blaine in Casablanca was hiding from
the world. Loretta was about to marry a fool.
Oscar Schindler was more concerned about
the wine list than the plight of the Jews.

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But the story has forced them to confront
their flaws and, at the Climax, prove that
theyve addressed them. Their material
circumstances dont really matter. And it
doesnt matter if theyre not free from
imperfection. Just so long as we sense that,
spiritually, theyre complete. Thats what
happens here.

In Groundhog Day, Mr. Keating gives Todd

and the boys standing on their desks a nod
that says, My, how youve grown.

In Brokeback Mountain, even though Ennis

has only a flannel shirt to remind him of
Jack, we know the character has gained the
wisdom that we cant choose in what form
love comes to us.

In Little Miss Sunshine, they all fail to get

what they want, but they get what they need:
the family is "complete".

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In Little Miss Sunshine, 7-year-old Olive
has scandalized the contest, Richard hasnt
got his book deal, color-blind Dwayne cant
fly jets, Frank is possibly only the second
most important Proust scholar in the United
States, and the smack-addict Grandpa has
ODd and is curled up in the trunk of the
Kombi but at least now the family is

And, in The Kings Speech, when Bertie

thanks Logue, My friend, and his therapist
for the first time calls him, Your majesty
you again get this sense that our Hero, after
all their travails, is finally complete.

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Summary of the Heros Emotional

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Character 101:

Creating great characters is an art unto itself,

separate from storytelling. So, what are the
basics? A great character is someone the
reader wants to spend time with. Whether
they're loved or hated, great characters
intrigue and draw us in. The best writers are
able to walk that line between universality
and uniqueness, loading a character with
both. A reader needs to understand a
character and feel this is exactly what the
character would do given the situation and
the character's past. The reader is taken on a
ride with this character, learning more about
them as they go.

That's pretty general. So, what are the

specifics? Whether you're a novice or an old
pro, a quick primer on the general rules can't

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The Name

How do you find the perfect name? Most of

the time it either strikes you immediately or
you change it fifty times and finally give up.
Here are a couple of conventions to help out:

Bad guys generally have hard

names to pronounce or, at least,
contain hard sounds like the "g"
Heroes usually have common
names like John or Jack. The hero
is supposed to be a more universal
character that everyone relates to.
A more common name helps
accomplish this.
Many times the hero is referred to
by his or her first name, while other
male characters are referred to by
their last name.
Female characters are usually
referred to by first names. Unless,

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she is on the bad guy's team, then,
we refer to her by her last name.
Don't make the characters' names
too alike and avoid starting
different names with the same
Consider using nicknames for a
character or two. Or, perhaps, a
character uses his middle name as
his name, or has made up a whole
new name for himself. Mixing
these up a little will add realism to
naming your characters.

The Description

Basic rule: Keep it short. Readers

like to see a character reveal herself
through dialogue and action. They
also like to create the image in their
heads. You can definitely help
them along with well-placed
details, but a laundry list of
physical traits and clothing choices

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is not recommended. In novels,
adding a few lines about history or
attitude are helpful and can be a lot
of fun to write. But in screenplays,
leave it out. If you can't see or hear
it, it doesn't belong.
Associate objects with the
character, like a ring, a haircut, or
some other item that clues us into
his world.
In your story, keep the description
of your main characters separate
from your other descriptions. This
will set them apart from other
characters and the background.

The Occupation

What your character has chosen for a career

can be one of the biggest ways to add insight
into the way your character thinks.
What's important to her? How
would this affect the choice of

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Would money be an issue?
Is he building a career or simply
paying the bills?
What's her ultimate dream and does
this job lead there?

The Dialogue

Try to stay away from heavy

dialects. Of course, there are plenty
of exceptions to this rule, but,
generally, they frustrate the reader.
Make sure every character's
dialogue is differentiated from the
other characters.
Avoid having a character state the
sub-text. Some writers write a
scene "on the nose" the first time,
then go back and hide what's really
being said behind dialogue or note
it in the margins so they can keep
track of what's really being said.
The best dialogue says volumes

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without really saying what it's
Keep it consistent.
Put opposites together as much as
possible, a scene with a shy person
and an outgoing person can
produce some interesting dialogue.

The Motivation

Keep it simple. Whether we like a

character or not, we have to
understand what motivates her, and
it has to be universal enough to
appeal to a lot of people. Being
motivated for revenge is easy and
effective. Being motivated to
collect stamps is not so easy.
The reader has to understand the
motivation of every character.
If your character was approached
by a Fairy Godmother at the very
beginning of the story and told he

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has one wish, what would he ask
The two greatest motivators are: 1)
stopping a situation that creates or
will create suffering, or 2) starting
a situation that alleviates suffering.
Perhaps it's represented by an
object, like the world's largest
diamond... or love. But, the
motivation is usually to eliminate
Every character in a story needs a
clear motivation, even the guy
delivering the flowers.
Great characters have an inner goal
and an outer goal. Each links to the
other, but can be conflicting.

The Emotions

Design situations that will bring out

every emotion in the hero. We want
to see her laugh, cry, suffer, and
finally be happy. The best situation

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to bring out character emotions is
to threaten or destroy something or
someone she cares about.
We need to know how each
character feels about the other
characters. How this comes out is
up to the author, but it must be
made clear if someone hates
someone else and why.
A great technique is to use private
moments, when the character is
alone, to reveal how she really feels
about someone or something.
Everything that happens to a
character affects his inner
emotions--how he feels about
himself, or others (like the bad
guy), or the situation itself (upset at
Determine your character's
dominant emotion. Does she
represent happiness in the face of
misery, or, maybe, utter hatred. It's

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important to set a dominant

The Character Arc

Determine the direction of your

character's arc. Is the character
getting more healthy or less
Convention: A hero changes and
that change helps him attain the
goal. Villains generally don't
change and because she doesn't
change, she loses the goal.
A great arc can be when a character
learns to care about someone or
something other than themselves.

The Back-story

Create a character bio. It doesn't

have to be long, but it's invaluable.
Character Pro for Writers helps you
develop one and will keep

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countless details straight and
consistent throughout the writing
Understand where your character is
coming from, physically as well as
emotionally. A person is the sum of
her experiences. What has this
character experienced in the past
that will affect how she acts in your
Give every character a life away
from the story, so they're not just
there for the story. Perhaps he has a
hobby or other interest, like

The Character Flaw

A simple way to determine a

character flaw is to look at the story
and figure out a belief your
character holds that makes attaining
the goal impossible. Perhaps, he
refuses to forgive someone, or is

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scared to death of snakes. During
the story, he learns to overcome
that flaw.
The character sees the flaw as a
strength at first, but eventually
discovers why it's a weakness and
that it's in the way of achieving the

The Character Theme

The story has a theme, so do great


Determine a character's theme in

one word -- smart, funny, troubled,
angry, determined -- and stick with

What is Character?

Action is character; what a person does is

who he is, not necessarily what he says.
Film is behavior. Because were telling a

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story in pictures, we must show how the
character acts and reacts to the incidents and
events that he or she must confront and
overcome. Its so important to remember
that when youre writing the screenplay, the
main character must always cause things to
happen; not that she doesnt react to
incidents or events some of the time, but if
she is always reacting to events, she
becomes passive, weak, and thats when she
seems to disappear off the page. Lesser
characters appear more interesting than the
main character, and seem to have more life
and flamboyance.

Character action follows a distinct path: a

character encounters (or creates) a problem
which is uncompromisingly threatening; this
generates an urgent (dramatic) need or
intention to get or do something to cure the
problem, which formulates a goal the
external motivation. Having decided what it
is, they set out to get it (action) but things
dont go smoothly and they reach a crisis.
At the point they overcome the crisis (or

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accept they wont overcome it), their
motivations are altered; this is the climax or
change point. From this we can draw up a
character action equation:

Problem (motive) > intention/need (goal) >

action > crisis > result/climax/change point

This equation happens not just over your

entire screenplay, but also within each Act
(important), usually within each sequence
and often within each major scene.

What is character but the determination of

incident? And what is incident but the
illumination of character?

What is the particular incident or event that

triggers the action of your screenplay? Once
you know this key incident, then you can
measure and evaluate how your character
acts or reacts.

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What makes a good character? Four things:
dramatic need, point of view, attitude, and

Define the need of your character. What

does your main character(s) want to win,
gain, get, or achieve during the course of
your screenplay? The dramatic need is what
drives your character through the story line.
Once you define the need of the character,
you can create obstacles to that need. That
gives your story a dramatic tension.

What about your characters point of view

the way he or she views the world? This is
usually a value or belief system, and as the
psychologists say, What we believe to be
true, is true.

Values are the beliefs and opinions about the

forces that shape life which the character has
incorporated into his image of himself and
it is exactly these values that are going to be
challenged by the external events of the
story, thereby making the character come to

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grips with the internal need and alter the

Hegel, the great German philosopher,

maintained that the essence of tragedy drives
not from one character being right and the
other being wrong, or the conflict of good
against evil, but from both characters being
right, and the story becoming one of right
against right carried to its logical
conclusion. Both points of view are right
within the framework of character. These
two differing points of view, these two belief
systems, generate the conflict that drives the
script forward.

Attitude is defined as a manner or opinion,

and is usually an intellectual pose or
decision. Attitude is the way a character
wants to be perceived by the world, or
believes he or she is perceived by the world.

An attitude, as differentiated from point of

view, can be right or wrong, good or bad,

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positive or negative, angry or happy, cynical
or nave, superior or inferior, liberal or
Sometimes its difficult to separate the point
of view from the attitude. Just separate the
concepts in your own mind.

Character is also change. During the story

we learn something about your character.

Having a character change during the course

of the screenplay is not a requirement if it
doesnt fit your story. But since change is a
universal constant of life, if you can impel a
change within your character, it creates an
arc of behavior and adds another dimension
to the material.

All the above-mentioned character traits are

related and will overlap each other during
the process of building your character.
These ingredients are what make up the
foundation of good character; if you know
these four elements, dramatic need, point of
view, attitude, and change, you can

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approach any problem that deals with

Establish your main character. Then

separate the components of his/her life into
two basic categories: interior and exterior.
The interior life of your character takes
place from birth until the moment your film
begins. The exterior life of your character
takes place from the moment your film
begins to the conclusion of the story. It is a
process that reveals character.

Film is a visual medium. You must find

ways to reveal your characters conflicts

Start with the interior life (Gender? Age?

Marital status? Etc.). When you start
formulating your character from birth, you
see your character build in body and form.
Pursue this through his school years, then
into college. Once youve established the
interior aspect of your character in a

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character biography, move into the exterior
portion of your story.

The noted behaviorist Joseph Chilton Pierce

states that there are four major growths, or
spurts, of human intelligence in our lives.
The first occurs when the child is about a
year old, when he or she learns to walk. The
second spurt occurs about age four, when
the child learns that he or she has an
identity, as a boy or a girl, and has a given
name; when the four-year-old acts, there is a
response, and at that age he/she belongs to a
family, and these are his/her parents and
he/she lives in a house in this city. At this
age, the child is able to communicate his or
her needs.

The third stage, or spurt, in the growth of

human intelligence occurs when the child is
about nine or ten; thats the age when he or
she understands that he has a definite
personality, a singular and individual voice.
The young person is learning to question

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authority, forming his or her own opinions,
and starting speaking his mind. This is a
very vital time in the life of the child.

The fourth stage in the growth of human

intelligence, and the most important
development spurt, according to Pierce,
occurs when the person is about fifteen or
sixteen. The teenager. Thats the age when
the teenager rebels against everything and
tries to find his/her own voice, suddenly
understands that his parents are no longer
the center of the universe, and looks outward
into the world for role models, seeking
forms of behavior, like clothes or hair, that
are acceptable to his peers and express who
they are. They have an identity.

With the exterior aspect of your story, it is

important to examine the relationships
within the lives of your characters.

Isolate the elements or components of their

life. You must create your people in

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relationship to other people, or things. All
dramatic characters interact in three ways:

They experience conflict in achieving their

dramatic need.

They interact with other characters, either in

an antagonistic, friendly, or indifferent way.
Drama is conflict.

They interact with themselves. Fear is an

emotional element that must be confronted
and defined in order to overcome.

Separate your characters life into three

basic components professional, personal,
and private.

Professional: What does our character do

for a living? Where does he work? What is
his relationship with his coworkers? When
you can define and explore the relationships
of your main character to the other people in
his life, youre creating a personality and a
point of view.

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Personal: Marital status? Social life?

Friends? When you have doubts about your
character, go into your own life. Ask
yourself if you were in that situation, what
would you do in your characters place?
Define the personal relationships of your

Private: Hobbies? Interests? Dreams? In

short, this covers the area of your characters
life when he or she is alone.

Interior Exterior
Forms Reveals
Character Character
Biography Professional Personal Private
Work Marital/Social Alone

Characters make choices based on their

beliefs about themselves and the way they
think and behave the internal need story
element. But characters dont instinctively
make dramatic decisions. Like everyday
humans, characters take the minimum

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actions necessary so as not to risk betrayal
of their internal need.

Science of a Good Character:

Ever heard of serotonin? Without getting too

"sciencey," it's a chemical in the brain that
affects behavior. High serotonin levels cause
a calmness, serenity and resistance to
change. Low serotonin levels cause
edginess, risk taking, and desire for change.
Now the interesting stuff: In a study of
monkeys, it was discovered that the monkey
in charge, the "alpha," has a very high level
of serotonin, and the lower members of the
hierarchy have lower serotonin levels. Not
only that, but the level skyrockets within
minutes of taking charge. Now, what does
this mean to us non-monkey writers? It
works the same way with humans. When
you get to the top, you stop worrying so
much and you don't take as many risks as
those under you. And those lower on the
totem pole are more likely to have the desire
and risk-taking behavior to take over and

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have their serotonin levels rise.

In stories, we want our heroes and villains to

be active, fighting for change. Usually, a
villain was once in charge and lost it--a big
motivator. And a good hero, generally, has
never shown up on anyone's list of most
powerful people. Why is this? Serotonin.
Here's the upshot of all this science: start
your hero down and keep him down till the
end. Those that are in power will be more
complacent and not willing to change. Think
of Jaws, for example, the Mayor is in charge
and really doesn't want anything to change.
He's complacent and way too calm for the
situation. The Mayor's teaming with
serotonin. Meanwhile, our hero Sheriff is a
small town guy who no one really respects.
He never gets respect or moves up the ladder
until the end when he defeats the bad guy.
Keep your hero down and keep him there.
It's not just a good character tip, it's good

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Four Types of Heroes

First, remember that every story is

essentially the description of a character
struggling to solve a problem. Pick your
central character with care. The protagonist
must be interesting enough, and have a
grievous-enough problem, to make the
reader care about her. Often the protagonist
is called the viewpoint character, because
the story is told from that characters point
of view. It is the protagonists story that you
are telling, and she must be strong enough to
carry the story.

Select a protagonist (or viewpoint character)

who has great strengths and at least one
glaring weakness, and then give him a
staggering problem.

The Idol Hero

An idol hero is someone whose level of

skills and ability is higher than the average

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The idol hero takes actions that are not only

appropriate, but also often inspired. Much
of the appeal is that this hero exhibits
surprising knowledge and inventiveness.

Idol heroes usually know the truth right

away, have no doubts about their
assessment, and take action without
hesitation. The defining characteristic is
that they have no ambivalence and no self-

Needless to say, that is very different from

what most people experience in their daily
lives, so bonding, with such heroes, if only
for a few hours, provides a vacation from
their inner turmoil and confusion. The
audience doesnt identify with idol heroes as
much as they recognize their own fantasies.
There is an exciting, the-skys-the-limit
quality about the heroes.

Because idol heroes have skills and abilities

much higher than the average persons, the

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obstacles they face must be harder than
everyday challenges for the central match up
to succeed. This kind of hero demands big-
scale conflict, although with some idol
heroes the conflict does not have to be

Idol heroes can have endearing

imperfections, but such decorative
characteristics cannot be allowed to detract
from their ability to use their skills with
strength and precision. In fact, it is a big
mistake with an idol hero to focus on
ambiguity and doubt because it is primarily
his confidence that makes the character
attractive and fun.

The Everyman Hero

Unlike the idol hero whose abilities and

exploits are far above the average persons,
the Everyman hero exists right in the thick
of those everyday challenges.
They go into a challenge with the skills that
most people would bring to the situation and

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are as stumped facing the quandary of the
human condition as the viewer.

The Everyman hero provokes a bond with

viewers through recognition of and
identification with the challenges such
characters face. Everyman heroes are life
affirming, because they convey the message
that a person doesnt have to be perfect, or
brilliant, to succeed.

The Everyman hero can find it very difficult

to face the need to accept change and/or act
on it. Often the challenges within the story
reveal the truth to this hero, and a large part
of the heroism is finding a way to accept it,
despite the inconvenience, pain, and difficult
change it may demand.

These heroes usually have many doubts, and

the search for the truth about feelings or
situations can take up much of the story.
They become heroes only when they are
able to rise above the doubt and confusion to

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act. The audience will be patient as long as
they believe
the inner conflict is real,
the search for the truth is genuinely
the hero is really trying, and
the hero will take action once the
truth is learned.
(However, it the character takes a long time
to find the truth and then stalls before taking
action, the audience will feel cheated
because the character failed to act

Bonding with the Everyman hero gives the

audience a chance to affirm and synchronize
their emotions. These heroes live in a world
of doubt, confusion, and ambiguity, and
their story is their struggle to rise above that.
As a result, their heroism comes from
overcoming internal issues in order to
influence the outside world. This type of
story reflects an obstacle course that forces
the hero to rise above natural limits.

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Most genre pieces have Everyman heroes
because they are the easiest heroes to bond
with, if well drawn. Despite their many
flaws and weaknesses, Everyman heroes are
able to rise above those limitations, at least
for a moment, to take control of the
situation. The audience is fascinated by the
mechanics of real heroism, which has been
defined as not the absence of fear, but
acting despite the fear.

These heroes change through the story,

usually because they learn a lesson. Often
they start out thinking better of themselves
than they deserve, if there is a discrepancy
between what the character thinks and does,
it is more common that they overestimate

These heroes tend to become a driving force

in the story because of their own need for
resolution. Since their heroism is defined by
facing and accepting the truth despite the
pain, it is crucial that the audience have a
clear understanding of how much pain they

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are feeling, and what acting on their truths
may cost.

The Underdog Hero

Underdog heroes are characters at a genuine

disadvantage when compared to the world
around them. In an objective statement of
fact, this kind of hero is not the equal of
members of the audience; in some way,
underdog heroes lack what the average
person has, which prevents them from being
successful. Their handicaps can be physical,
emotional, social, or mental and must be
legitimate, in their own estimation as well as
the audiences.
These heroes often know the truth early, and
their heroism comes from sticking to that
truth even when the appropriate action is

These heroes have great ambiguity, and

generally underestimate themselves. Part of
their potential for heroism is that they are
much more capable of change than they

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realize. Underdogs can start out as losers,
but there must be some indication to the
audience that the underdogs can win, even if
they dont believe it themselves. Planting
seeds of greatness in the characterization of
an underdog is important because the
audience will not bond with a weak
character with no chance of winning. The
underdog must have potential to win, even if
the circumstances and odds are against it.

The example of courage despite

overwhelming odds is what makes the
underdog hero life-affirming to the
audience. Screen time spent ensuring the
audience knows the handicap is real and the
odds are overwhelming will heighten these
stories appeal. Its also important to
emphasize the underdog heros tenacity and
discipline because it makes the
accomplishments even more impressive.
These heroes change over the course of a
story, especially in their view of themselves.
In fact, if there is a discrepancy between
how they see themselves and how the world

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sees them, they think more poorly of
themselves, in the beginning, than others do.
These heroes, therefore, are usually involved
in transformation stories. Underdog heroes
gain new ability, or new understanding of
their ability, through the obstacle course of
the story.

These heroes usually know what they want

early in the story, but have to find the
strength to achieve it or even to believe that
it is possible. Their goal is usually
expressed in an external challenge, but the
more difficult challenge is the conquest of
their internal doubts, discouragement, and

As a result, underdogs become heroes when

they conquer their internal obstacles long
enough to overcome external obstacles.
They are not usually a driving force in the
story until pushed to be by outside
circumstances; they finally change because
they are unwilling to endure any longer the
pain of remaining the same.

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The Lost Soul Hero

The heroes we have discussed so far create a

bond with the audience through positive
emotions, but the lost soul hero expresses
the darker side of human nature, an aspect of
the audiences life they rarely want to talk
about or deal with.

From the audiences point of view, this is a

peer who takes the wrong turn, goes down
the wrong path There but for the grace of
God go I. Viewers are intrigued by this
glimpse of the dark side.

This kind of hero avoids knowing the truth,

fails to act on it, or takes inappropriate
actions. To form a bond the audience needs
to empathize with the heros motives, at
least in the beginning. Audiences can
admire the precision of their actions or the
intelligence of their plans. Viewers can
sympathize with their lack of options. In a
strange way, viewers can even admire the
courage it takes to be bad, since most people

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are reluctant to pay the social and internal
price of being bad in real life. In order to
pursue their path, lost soul heroes often have
to break out of the mold, resist peer
pressure, and stand up to internal fear or
their own conscience.

Audiences admire these heroes courage to

be bad because most people have longings
to do bad things. They are not stopped by
personal morality, but by fear of the
consequences. Because those consequences
hold most people in check, someone who
isnt stopped or made hesitant by those same
forces fascinates audiences.

This kind of hero is life affirming. Initially,

the audience has the guilty feeling that they,
too, would make the same choices when the
crimes arent too bad; after all, its fun to
have the dark side released temporarily.
Eventually, though, the hero goes one step
too far, and the audience pulls back; they
experience a sense of relief and personal
encouragement that they are not bad after

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all; they feel they have better moral or
ethical judgment than the character; indeed,
in their negative space, the audience feels

The final rejection of the lost souls actions

and values, when viewers abandon the lost
soul to the dark path chosen as they return to
the light, is what makes this hero dramatic.
Because of the previously established bond
between these heroes and the audience,
viewers have a sense of loss or mourning as
they leave these heroes to face their bleak
fate alone.

These heroes change as the story progresses,

but always in a downward direction. Often
they have a chance to learn a moral lesson
that could save them (and secondary
characters in such stories often learn that
lesson and pull out in time), but these heroes
dont learn it; the audience does, however,
which confirms the value of existence.

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Individually, this heros decisions and
actions must make sense, or seem acceptable
at first, but slowly the characters path
begins to go astray. These heroes ultimate
desires may not be admirable, but they must
be understandable, because if the audience
cant imagine wanting the same things,
viewers eventual rejection of this character
will reflect mush less courage on the
audiences part and be less intense and
emotionally satisfying at the end.

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The Action-Adventure Protagonist:

Is a larger-than-life character.

The issue of greatness inborn or greatness

thrust upon a character may be an element of
a particular Action-Adventure story, but in
either case, the protagonist is, or becomes,
an extraordinary figure. The character may
have relatively humble origins but historic
events call upon the characters native
capacity for excellence in the selfless service
of society. Conversely, the character may
be born to a greatness that must yet be
proven in battle. The quality of the
individual characters greatness, natural or
achieved, is an outgrowth of the narrative

Possesses martial skills and strategic


Action-Adventure is necessarily about

physical action. Physical force is absolutely
required to break the stalemate of siege and

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to defeat the antagonist, so the protagonist
must be a character who is skilled to some
degree in combat. Average characters of
any sort are excluded from leadership in
Action-Adventure for the very fact that they
do not and cannot possess the requisite
martial skills.

Has the authority to carry out the


Action-Adventure central characters, as a

rule, are law enforcement officers or
military personnel in some way. It is
essential that the character at least be
deputized off the record to act on behalf of a
lawfully constituted body. This
authoritative warrant allows the character to
bypass and cut through street-level
impediments, but more important, it
provides the character with the dispensation
to take lethal action.

Official ordination may not always be

possible, of course. Shane, for instance, acts

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in a lawless land where no true legal
authority exists. The deputization comes not
from some onscreen source, but from the
audience itself. The protagonist on the
screen acts not only on behalf of society on
screen, but for the society in the theater
watching the screen; and even the
spontaneous dispatch of bad guys can be
approved only as an act authorized by the
power of the audience. Without both a
justifiable reason to act, and a cause that is
worthy of their endorsement, the larger
society of the theater audience members will
refuse to deputize the hero, and the
protagonist truly becomes a selfish, vengeful

Has the moral responsibility to act.

Because Action-Adventure stories are

morality plays, they are not dispassionate
executions of predetermined justice. The
main character is allowed to brood over the
obligation to do the job, or the methods by
which the job must be accomplished, or

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even the worthiness of the mission, but the
conclusive act will be to do the right thing
because it is the right thing to do.

Has a personal code of honor.

The main character in an Action-Adventure

drama possesses a self-contained code of
behavior, a kind of personal nobility that
merges with the abstract values of the
society under siege. In fact, the heros code,
frequently hard-won through experience,
may be much more rigorous than the
expedient principles of the world at large,
and serves, therefore, to set the hero apart.
The heros personal code of honor
distinguishes the hero even more than does a
knack for anti-social skills.

Has full grasp of the required actions.

The Action-Adventure protagonist knows

that the inevitable result of the decision to
act will be a physical fight of lethal
proportions. This is no expectation that

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somehow the problem can be negotiated
away, or, for that matter, that rescue in the
form of greater or more powerful allies will
relieve the responsibility of taking up the
fight to its fullest. There may be some
fading anticipation of relief, particularly in
military situations, but the characters are
fully aware that the only realistic
alternatives are triumph or death.

Remains free of emotional entanglements.

Blessed cowboys, ever virgin, the early

Western movie heroes loved only their
horses and politely abstained from the
romantic snares of female familiarity. Of
course, this anchorite lifestyle kept them
free to roam the plains, knights-errant in
search of valorous deeds to perform, which
is hardly an attribute unique to the American
mythos. However, as the genre urbanized
away from its pastoral beginnings, the
novice loner protagonist grew up to become
the Action-Adventure films dont-give-a-

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damn, aggressively anti-social, misfit so of a
bitch, like Det. Harry Callahan.

Theres a long catalog of cantankerous

troublemakers in the annals of Action-
Adventure. The character of the outsider is
not merely a holdover from legendary
Western European wanderers like Lancelot,
however. The American Action-Adventure
protagonist has been barred not only from
the larger community, but from family as
well. The perpetual conundrum for the
genres leading character is how to preserve
the sinuous instincts of the hunter-killer
while exposing the naked underbelly of an
inner longing for vulnerability.

Is willing to die for a cause.

Of all film genres, Action-Adventure is

unique in its single most distinctive feature
the readiness of the protagonist to face
death. No well-drawn character, any more
than any normal human being, is eager to
die in meaningless self-sacrifice. However,

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given the decisive confrontation between
good and evil, the Action-Adventure
protagonist is prepared to make the ultimate
gift of life in order to defend an abstract
ideal. Of course, even the character may not
recognize the action as an altruistic sacrifice.
Almost certainly the potential for death
occurs in the defense of more tangible

Simple Motivation--What Would YOU


Sometimes to get a plot to work we sell out

our characters. We've all done it and it's the
quickest way to lose a reader. We coax a
character into performing some act that
helps the plot but shatters, even
momentarily, his character. How can we
avoid this error? Give every character
common sense. Think about what you would
you do if you were in her position?

Usually the root cause of this problem is in

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the development of the story. We probably
developed the character and the story
simultaneously. Believe it or not, that's a

Story first
Many professional writers come up with an
idea and develop a full story and plot
BEFORE tackling character. When the
story's finished, they'll develop a character
with the right motivation, background, past
and current trauma to motivate him to
perform every action he needs to perform in
the story to make it believable. This
technique works better for idea-driven

Character first
Many more professional writers come up
with an idea and develop a character to help
explore the idea. In this case, the character
should be clearly drawn and allowed to take
the reader through the story without a writer
trying to impose plot points on her. Create a
great character and let him go. This works

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very well for character-driven pieces. One
word of caution: if the character isn't fully
drawn and well-rounded heading into the
creation of the story, you'll have problems,
as well.
Either route you decide to go, the most
important element for both is to apply
common sense. The audience would never
question why your character would perform
some action when under those circumstance.
As a reader, I can put myself in her place
and see that every decision, however
difficult, makes sense.

Define What's Missing:

It's simple to think of qualities and habits

your character has, but the most important
element of a character can be the very thing
he or she is missing. What has happened in
his or her past that causes this piece to be
missing and what happens as a catalyst for
this character to once again find this missing

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Consider a story where a character was a

"Caregiver" type, who's life revolved around
taking care of others with a horrible disease
at the expense of giving up his own life. To
the outside observer, and to the reader, at
first he seems like a wonderful,
compassionate person. But it turns out he
has no compassion. He takes care of these
people because he lost his father to that
disease and he feels he should help them to
help himself deal with the loss -- he doesn't
really care about these people at all. This
comes out in interesting ways that gives this
character a lot of depth.

Then, he falls in love with one of the

patients and, through his crisis, learns to
have compassion -- his missing element. He
finds himself helping people because he
wants to, not because he thinks he should.
He learns to draw boundaries and
remembers he has his own life to live. It's a
powerful transformation. He was missing
something and found it during the story.

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Think about your character. What's he doing

in the story? What assumptions do you make
about his motivation to be doing this
activity? Is it possible he's lacking the very
quality you assume he has? That's the
quality he should acquire during the story
and the story should wrap around his
learning this lesson. This technique can
work for any story and any genre.

Relating Character to Story:

Here, at the Character Development Center,

we recommend developing a story in this

1. concept
2. character
3. story/plotting

If you're a brave soul with some experience,

you may prefer "winging it" by letting your
character create the story as you write.

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Whatever your style, you're going to need to
look at how your character relates to the
story. The basic question you have to answer
is: "Why is this character exactly wrong for
this concept?" Or, more accurately, "Why
was this character once perfect and what
happened to change that?"

Through the story, you define and reveal

what happened to the hero to make him ill
fitted to be in the position to achieve the
story goal. What trauma have they
experienced or seen? What physical or
mental weakness have they developed. Or
what was it about their childhood or natural
disposition that makes him the wrong person
to be in this situation. Perhaps he is a former
cop who is terrified of guns after his partner
was shot. Now he's on a plane and finds
himself the only one in a position to thwart a
high-jacking attempt. He's clearly the wrong
person to have in this situation.

As the story progresses, the issue is

complicated and the character is forced to

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deal with the situation in order to complete
his goal of saving the planeload of
passengers. Eventually, he works it out,
making him once again the right person to
have in the story to complete the goal.
Which, of course, he does just in the nick of
time. Okay, so how do you pull this off?

Step one is to create a story

Step two is to figure out what kind
of character would be the worst
person for the concept you have.
What's wrong with them that makes
them that way? What's your
character's flaw?
Step three is to create specific story
events that reveal this flaw, then
challenges this flaw, then forces the
character to resolve it.

Hopefully, this will help you get your

character properly related to your story.

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Is Your Character an Adult or Child (not

Try a simple experiment. Think about a

person you know and blurt out, without too
much thinking, either "adult" or "child."
Now try another, and another. We're not
talking about their age here. There are
definitely older people who can be labeled a
child, and vice versa. Children are given to
playfulness, extraversion, openness to
experience, and having a silly sense of
humor. While an adult personality may be
more reserved, task focused, and, although
they like a good laugh, are more interested
in getting back to the serious issues at hand.
Child personalities are more likely to make
mistakes and learn from them. While an
adult is more likely to shrug off a mistake as
not their fault. When creating a character,
it's very important to decide which of the
two major personalities she will fall in to.

In general, heroes are children while villains

are adult personalities.

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Children are more open to change. They
know they don't understand everything and
are more willing to learn as they go than a
more staid adult type. Adults tend to think
they know everything since they've
experienced more. As a result, change can
come about more slowly in an adult
personality. The childlike hero is able to
adapt to the situation, which can be the key
to winning the story struggle.

The child personality tends to live in the

moment, never really planning in advance,
giving her a talent for thinking on the spot
and coming up with an innovative way out
of a situation. Adult personalities are more
likely to sit back and think things through,
wasting valuable time and resources. They
have plans (sometimes dastardly plans) and
when things go wrong, they may stick with
the plans rather than "winging it." This can
be their undoing.

A child personality is more physical, able to

run and catch that swinging cable, than adult

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types who tend to get others to do it for
them. A child-hero is more likely to run into
the burning house and save the goldfish than
an adult-villain. Why get the suit dirty when
there are firefighters trained for that sort of

Adults are careful speakers and exhibit more

advanced language skills than the child type.
A child may find his mouth getting him into
more trouble, while the adult relies on
speech to make herself understood.

The child personality is more outwardly

emotional, screaming, crying, and fighting,
while the adult is more calm and self-

Again, it's important to point out we're not

talking about age. You could have a scene
on a playground with eight year olds and
make it clear who are the adults and who are
the children personalities. This technique
can prove to be an effective tool in

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differentiating your characters and giving
them instant life and theme.

Making Your Hero More Effective

Separate the Hero from the world

The hero should always be in contrast to, if

not actively in conflict with, the world of
the story. It is that separation that makes his
or her story worth telling.

The issue that separates the hero from the

world is also crucial to your story because it
is a tangible expression of the dramatic
center of your script. Sometimes heroes are
fully aware of these differences from the
beginning of the story, while other heroes do
not realize that crucial difference until the
climactic moments of the story.

Sometimes this dynamic is referred to as the

fish out of water genre. Any story
benefits from some element of polarity

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because it implies an inevitability of conflict
that is structured into the central logic of the
story. Some scripts really focus on that
difference, and others use it more for
texture, but any story is strengthened by the
polarity because that ability to hold to ones
beliefs despite peer pressure is really the
essence of heroism. The more the element
of separation is explored, the stronger the
hero will seem.

You can intensify the audiences awareness

of this polarity by your choice of story
arena. Ask yourself how much you want to
draw attention to the contrast, and then what
arena would reflect the appropriate contrast.

Establish a Personalized Link Between

Hero and Audience

Make your hero likeable. In some ways

this advice makes sense; if characters are
likable, they are more pleasant to spend time
with. However, this rule is not absolute and

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can be quite limiting and incomplete,
especially for lost soul heroes.

Another conventional wisdom is that you

must create sympathy for the character, but,
again, its only a good technique for some
types of heroes; it significantly undercuts the
appeal of an idol hero, for instance.

Instead you must focus on making your hero

empathetic, so that viewers feel a sense of
recognition and affinity on some level. In
fact, an unsympathetic character whose
feelings the audience understands is much
more powerful than a sympathetic character
whose stick-figure emotions are too generic
to seem believable.

Establish the Heros Strengths

Rooting interest should build over time as

the audience learns about the characters.
While the hero submits to pressure or deals
with increasingly difficult circumstances,
more and more admirable qualities about

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him should become evident to the audience.
As the obstacles get more and more serious,
the audience must develop more reasons to
have confidence in the hero, or the hero will
soon seem unequal to the challenge. If the
audience were allowed to know everything
right away, the characters would fail to
perform their main function that of luring
the audience onto the roller coaster and
keeping them enthralled.

As a result, it is essential that heroes have at

least one strength, a secret weapon, that
spark of convincing heroism which is the
reason they will win if they win. That
information can be obvious, as in idol
heroes, or conveyed in subtle seeds of
greatness for an underdog, but regardless of
how you address this in your script, it is
central: the audience wont bond with
heroes unless they have a credible chance of

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Establish the Heros Vulnerability

A hero doesnt have to be perfect. In fact,

except for an idol hero, heroes need
something to overcome or they wont seem
heroic. It adds to the excitement of your
story if there are real doubts about the heros
strengths, just as long as those
vulnerabilities dont contradict the heros
essential appeal.

What is your heros secret liability, the

reason the hero will lose if the hero loses?
The secret flaw the Achilles heel is
crucial to developing a well-rounded
character. As you develop the central match
up, think about the events of your plotline
and why they would have greater impact on
your hero than on someone else.

Establish the Heros Values

Values are usually what separate the hero

from the world, although sometimes heroes
dont know it at the beginning of the story.

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Such values are connected to your dramatic
center and are also a crucial element in the
creation of the dramatic equation of your

Establish the Heros Motives

In order for the audience to empathize with

the hero, they must understand the heros
reasoning and private emotional desires and
not just the external action chosen to achieve
the outcome. Such motives are often
connected to the dramatic stakes of your
story and can either be positive or negative.

Establish the Heros Goal

The heros goal is always to complete the

obstacle course successfully, but exactly
what that means may not always be evident
at the beginning of the story. Sometimes the
obstacle course is apparent from the
beginning of the script, sometimes the
obstacle course emerges or becomes more
difficult unexpectedly.

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Establish the Heros Plan

Understanding the heros plan gives the

audience the ability to measure success or
failure, gain or loss, along the way. As with
the heros goal, the plan may be evident
early in the story, or becomes so as the story

Pearl of Battle

In a well-constructed story, the pivotal

moment of change often forces heroes to
reveal their true nature not what they think
they are or what the world thinks they are or
what they want the world to think they are
but what they are in their essence. That is
the moment of truth. Usually that quality of
truth would never have been revealed except
by the struggle, and so it is the pearl of
battle, a moment of beauty created by
irritation and difficulty.

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A villain is a character who from motives

of selfish gain knowingly seeks to injure,
kill or loot another person.

While everyone can relate to the dreams and

desires expressed by a hero character,
having those desires thwarted is perhaps an
even more universal experience. As a result,
antagonists express the viewers fear,
frustration, and even nightmares,
representing the forces of opposition.

Not every story needs to include a human

antagonist. In fact, many films involving
internal conflict, or with lost soul heroes at
the center, have no need for an antagonist,
because the heroes contain the seeds of
possible destruction within themselves.

However, most stories benefit from having a

personalized focus of opposition. They
provide antagonism, resistance, or the
contrary force that often creates an active

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battle between good and bad, right and
wrong, productive and destructive.

The Match up of the Antagonist and the


In many ways, heroes are defined by the

opposition and can only be as interesting,
compelling, or exciting as the forces they are
up against. Antagonist are the
representation of the forces that oppose the
hero and thus the audience, so they must be
as overwhelming as possible, because that is
how people perceive their own problems.

The relative strength of the hero and the

villain is also an important aspect of your
dramatic equation. The more powerful the
antagonist, the stronger your hero will seem;
in fact, a powerful antagonist gives a film
much of its emotional impact, because it
determines the difficulty of the challenge to
which the hero must rise. Here is no
suspense if the hero and the antagonist are
now well matched.

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Three Kinds of Antagonists

Just as heroes are defined by courage,

antagonists are defined by how powerful
they are, and how much they enjoy being

The Fiend

As seen through audiences eyes, the fiend

antagonist is more than their equal.
Matching the idol hero in ability, the fiends
skill level is very high, if not superhuman.
The fiend is similar to the idol hero in many
ways, yet because of different moral values,
the fiend serves destruction while the hero
tries to build or preserve.

The essence of fiends is that the things that

stop normal people, such as inner morality
or social limits, which the average person
acknowledges and accepts, do not stop them.
In fact, they actually enjoy destruction,
whether its to guarantee their own survival,
or for entertainment. In comedies, much of

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the humor comes from their lack of
sensitivity to the usual social norms.

Fiends are most effective when powerful,

theatrical, evil, and extreme.

When the battle is idol vs. fiend, there

generally are large-scale events and major
stakes. A fiend against an Everyman makes
for an exciting contest, because it is very
clear from the beginning that the hero is
outmatched. That type of contest often
forces heroes to rise above natural limits, at
least for a few moments. The suspense
about whether they will be able to transcend
their limitations is exciting. The everyman
becomes a genuine hero, triumphing over
the odds.

You dont often see a fiend against an

underdog. The hero is so outmatched that
the contest is hard to sustain. However, you
can see this is some subplots.

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The Adversary

Adversaries function at the same level of

ability as Everyman, and are not necessarily
evil; they just have a different agenda. As
seen through the audiences eyes, these
characters are the audiences equal in
abilities and often attitudes, and are often
normal people even good people whose
desires are in conflict with the heros. Often
these antagonists dont intend to destroy,
even though that is the result of their

An adversary against an idol is usually an

unequal match unless there is a group of
adversaries involved. An adversary against
Everyman tends to explore the more
complex issues of the human condition,
where there is no automatic right or wrong.
It is also common in genre films, like
Westerns, detective stories, cop films, and
love stories.

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The Pest

The pest kind of antagonist is not the

audiences equal in innate power or personal
ability. Pests tend to get their power from
their position, which they often misuse.
Because of the low level of ability, this
character is often seen in comedies, and is
the least frequent type of antagonist because
the ineptitude prevents the central match up
from being exciting.

Pest against idol: Because there is such a

discrepancy in their levels of ability, you do
not often see this match up sustained
through an entire story. Pest vs. Everyman
is the most frequent use of a pest antagonist,
because it reflects the audiences own
frustrations. Pest vs. underdog is a rare
match up because the pest, who functions as
an irritant, often seems petty against a
legitimate underdog.

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The Action-Adventure Antagonist:

Is a personified individual.

Though the overriding opposition may be

broadly defined, such as the Nazi war
machine, an Action-Adventure protagonist
must have a face to attach to the evil so that
when the final Showdown comes, there is
someone to actually fight against. It is
difficult for the audience to feel triumph,
even by winning a decisive battle, if they do
not have the satisfaction of having
eliminated a key figure in the making of the
Is a fully dimensional character.

Altogether too often, the antagonist in

Action-Adventure films is unworthy of the
protagonists energies, nothing more than a
drooling psychopath whose motivation for
evil is simply to be evil.

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Is not stupid.

An Action-Adventure antagonist, in all

likelihood, is brighter, better educated, and
much better prepared than the protagonist.
The antagonist is a strategist, who has made
careful, foolproof plans to reach a specific
goal. The Action-Adventure protagonist is
thrust into the antagonists Narrative
Trajectory, like it or not, at a high-pressure
point when the antagonists objective is
already in sight. The protagonist, therefore,
begins the drama at a disadvantage, an
underdog who must continually play catch-
up to the antagonists superior tactics and
resources. Yet, it is only because of the
protagonists interjection that the antagonist
is diverted from the goal and, in due course,
must face down the protagonist, who will
seek to block evils path to success.

Forces the protagonist to act.

The antagonist is always bigger, meaner,

and has more resources than the protagonist.

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If not, then the protagonist would walk over
the opposition. There would be no dramatic
conflict and therefore no story. Just as
important, the antagonist needs to be more
powerful than the surrounding sycophants.
It is often easy, and fun, for screenwriters to
create secondary and tertiary villains who
have intriguing aberrations of body, or one-
of-a-kind skills. The treachery of these
secondary villains is that they become
absorbing in and of themselves, to the
damnation of the story. The chief antagonist
must be the baddest of the bunch.
Moreover, the protagonist must necessarily
fight through the subordinate antagonists to
get to the final confrontation with the big
guy. If that antagonist is so flawed in
resolve, or so incapable of individually
pursuing the goal, then the protagonist will
easily have the upper hand and, therefore,
cannot be tested sufficiently to satisfy the

Has a morally different point of view.

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In the first instance, the antagonists goal
must be important enough to threaten the
society that the protagonist is duty-bound to
defend. Not only is the antagonists goal a
direct threat to society, it is a direct benefit
to the antagonist, and is consistent with that
antagonists view of the world. In other
words, the antagonist commits actions that,
from his point of view, are morally
justifiable. In fact, if we in the audience
shared a society with the antagonist, that
character would be our protagonist.

The characters of Action-Adventure drama,

then, are more than mere humans, even if
their origins are mundane and their impulses
are the most prosaic of human emotions
anger, fear, outrage, or cowardice itself. But
these characters rise above their foundation,
noble or commonplace, to do something on
behalf of an idea, code, society, or value that
is challenged by an equally motivated
antagonist who is morally different. These
opposing champions, each willing to die for

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a point of view, face each other in a battle
for truth.

Strengthening Your Antagonist

Make Them a Representative of the


Just as being separated from the world

strengthens the hero, the antagonists power
base comes from the fact that the world of
the story often supports the antagonists
basic values, even if the antagonist later
takes those values to an extreme.

Establish the Antagonists Strength

It can be quite effective to give the

antagonists at least one likable, even
admirable, quality, because that prevents the
audience from dismissing them at once as
utter bad guys. These seeds of greatness
can make the antagonists eventual loss or
defeat more provocative, and this is
particularly true in the contest between

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adversaries and Everyman heroes, which can
provide a forum for exploring issues of
deeper emotional complexity.

Establish the Antagonists Weakness

As with your hero, giving the antagonist an

Achilles heel can add excitement and
unpredictability to the contest, especially
when the antagonist is a fiend. Otherwise, it
can seem implausible that heroes with lower
levels of abilities would be able to win.

Establish Motives, Plans, and Goals

Often people feel that they are up against an

unknown, or at least an unnamed source of
opposition, so it can be very effective to
stagger revelations about the antagonist.
One way is to reveal the antagonists
methods but not the motivation. Another
possibility is to reveal the motive but not the
identity for a while. Either device can help
create suspense and make ultimate
revelations more effective.

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Additionally, knowing an antagonists goals

and plans give the audience a way to
measure the characters success or failure at
any point in the story. A clever and
complex plan can also add to the audiences
sense of the antagonists power.

Cast Design

It may seem simplistic, but you have four

main primary character types to choose
Their category is established when
that character is introduced
They should all have been
introduced by the end of Act I,
certainly by the start of Act II
Each character stays in their
designated category throughout the
script; changing categories will
only diffuse the focus of your script
You dont need all four, but you
must have a protagonist, an

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opposition and either a mirror or
You dont have to explore all these
characters inner motivation and
conflict (although with your
protagonist it is vital)


This is your protagonist. It is this

characters job to keep the story moving
forward, hence their goal(s) and external
motivation drive your plot; their decisions
initiate the action. And they must want to
pursue these goals to the very limit.

Opposition character

The antagonist (also called the Nemesis) is

the character who most stands in the way of
your hero achieving their goal and creates
obstacles in their path. They are a visible
character who visibly confronts the hero
remember, good villains make good drama.

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Also they must push your protagonist to
their utmost credible limits.

Mirror characters

Also called the Reflection or Support, this is

the character who is most aligned to the
protagonist. They support the protagonists
goals (or are in the same basic situation);
add depth to the character of the protagonist
via dialogue, making your protagonist more
credible, more believable. A protagonist
working alone without this Sancho Panza-
type figure will cause difficulties for you in
letting the audience know exactly what is
going on with your protagonist and your

Romance character

This is the character who is the object of

your protagonists romantic/sexual desire,
the active romantic pursuit the prize, if
you like, at the end of the journey. This
character alternately supports and then

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creates obstacles to the protagonist
achieving their goal. The protagonists
emotion grows out of conflict; if there is no
conflict in the relationship, things will get

Remember, if you are going to create a

romance character, it is important to get
your audience to identify or fall in love
with your romance as much as your

Secondary Characters

The function of secondary characters is to

explain, examine, and heighten contrast
between the hero and the world. Scenes
with confidants, friends, lovers, supporters,
mentors and advisers allow a hero to express
thoughts, desires, goals, plans, and values.
They are characters used to define the hero
and the heros world, people who really
explain who the hero is and why. Secondary
characters can also be used to examine the
world of the story, including the antagonists

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character, values, and worldview, thus
intensifying the polarity between the hero
and the world. The more you define one,
the more you imply the conflict with the
other. It makes the hero more distinctive by
contrast and makes the obstacles against him
more formidable.

Once you have chosen an arena for your

story that amplifies the difference between
the hero and the world, you need to populate
both sides of that dramatic equation. You
need to show the audience the people and
events that explain and magnify the contrast
of the two worldviews. Such divisions are
an integral part of your dramatic equation,
heightening the audiences sensitivity to the
values and conflicts involved.

The love interest and confidante characters

carry the helping function. Theyre needed
to make the main characters more relational,
and to reveal aspects of the main characters
that we wouldnt learn if we only watched
them do the story.

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Most films have a love interest. Many have
confidante characters. Every film doesnt
need these character types, but they can be
very helpful in defining and dimensional
zing the major character. Love interest
characters can be main or supporting.

Whenever you start to think about a

character for a story, even a secondary
character, try to sum up his or her essential
characteristics in an emotion vs. emotion
formula (love vs. hate, fear vs. duty, loyalty
vs. greed, obedience vs. justice, self vs.
duty). With this approach, you begin to
understand that the protagonists real
problem is inside her head. The basic
conflict of the story, the mainspring that
drives it onward, is an emotional conflict
inside the mind of the protagonist. The
other conflicts in the story stem from this

A strong story has many tiers of conflict.

First is the inner struggle of the protagonist,
emotion vs. emotion. Then this interior

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struggle is made exterior by focusing on an
antagonist who attacks the protagonist
precisely at her weakest point. The
antagonist amplifies the protagonists inner
struggle, brings it out of her mind and into
the outside world.

Fluffing up a Boring Secondary


How many times have we read through a

story and found one or two secondary
characters that just seem flat? There's
something missing there. Well, friends,
there's a simple technique that's guaranteed
to instantly fluff up a secondary character.
Here's the basic formula:

Interesting perspective = Interesting


Okay, so what's that mean? Perspective boils

down to a specific like or dislike and why.
And the most interesting perspective is one
that opposes our hero or society in general.

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Let's say our hero loves puppies. She works
at a dog shelter and her life is about helping
puppies. Now imagine in your story that a
friend of her love interest needs a character
fluff. Simply add an opposite perspective: he
hates puppies. But that's not enough. He
needs an elaborate reason why he hates
puppies: they're messy, they're needy, they
pooh all over the place... This instantly adds
character dimension to his character and it
can be done in one scene. It adds insight to
his character (why does he hate puppies) and
conflict with the hero. And it's wicked easy.
Try it.

Now this technique generally works best

when you need to spruce up a secondary
character and the key is aligning this
perspective against the hero and/or society
in general. By that I mean heroes usually
represent the good in a society or culture and
this character would oppose this. However,
there are heroes who oppose what society
feels and this secondary character would
suddenly become more important--

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representing a culture's beliefs. The point is
to choose a perspective in opposition to the
hero because he or she will have most of the
screen or page time in the story.

The technique also works, to a lesser degree,

to help dimensionalize a main character.
Usually this takes the form of exhibiting an
interesting perspective on something not
directly in the story. We may find out that
our wonderful hero hates puppies. The
reasons why can add layers to an already
interesting character. Be careful, though;
this kind of thing can backfire on you. If you
expose one of these dimensional zing
characteristics too early in a story, you could
alienate the audience.

The key to this technique is to define an

opposite perspective to what our hero or
society believes and then coming up with
reasons why this could be. It's the recipe to
an instant and easy character fluff.

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Give Every Character a Theme:

As writers we've had the concept of "theme"

pounded into our heads. "What's your story
about?" Every story needs a theme: a single
word that tells us the core of the story--or,
what it's about. Well, it's time for some more
pounding. Every CHARACTER needs a
theme, too, from the doorman to the hero. It
keeps a character consistent, clear, and
functional. Let's look at an example:

Say we're writing a story about inner-city

kids in a gang. The story's theme is "family."
Everyone longs for a family and if they don't
get it at home, they'll get it in a gang. That's
the theme of the story. Now, one of the
characters needs to carry the theme, but not
necessarily the hero. Perhaps it's the hero's
grandfather. He talks about how important
family is, how valuable it is; he desperately
tries to hold the family together, etc. What
the story needs now is someone with an anti-
family theme to give the story balance.
Possibly the bad guy, another kid in the

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gang, is anti-family. He's even against, as it
turns out, the "gang" family as he betrays
the gang at the end and pays the price. The
story is starting to come to life and we don't
even have a plot yet. That's the power of
good character theme. Let's go on with our

A story usually has a love interest, but her

theme doesn't have to be "love." It can be
hope. You need to balance that with
hopelessness. Ah, this could be the hero's
theme, he feels hopeless. And, perhaps,
another gangster's theme is "the future." He
talks about it, believes in it, can't wait for
some future event to set him free.
Unfortunately, we all know from story
conventions that this character is a dead
man. But, in our story, maybe not. Maybe
he's the only one who survives some kind of
gang war. Whoa, story points are already

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The two basic rules for creating character
themes are:

1. Every character needs a single-

word theme to define him or her.
2. Every character theme has an
opposite to balance the story.

Which theme goes with which character is

completely up to you and depends on your
story concept. Character Pro can help you
develop your simple character concepts into
fully realized and well-rounded story

Giving a Minor Character Life:

What are some simple tricks to add instant

personality to a minor character? Here are
four techniques pros use to add a special
touch to a character who's there to serve a
function and not much else. Professionals
use these tricks when they need something
quick to bring someone to life. Major
characters can also benefit occasionally

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from these tricks of the trade.

Tip #1
Establish "off-screen" activities. A character
may enter a room very upset, looking for
club soda to clean up a pizza spot on his tie
from lunch. Or perhaps she's in a terrible
hurry because she has an appointment to
meet a landlord regarding a new apartment...
and she really needs this apartment. This
kind of business is quick to add, especially
when introducing a character, and seems to
be most effective when it doesn't have
anything to do with the story at all. It's like
these minor characters are in a story of their
own and are not just in ours to serve a

Tip #2
Using props is a tried and true method of
introducing a minor character. It's most
effective when we see the prop before we
meet the character. Perhaps we see their
beat-up car or look over their diplomas on
their doctor's office wall just before they

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stumble in drunk. Whether you're
introducing them, or adding instant
character, establishing a past through props
is a quick and effective way to pull this off.

Tip #3
Give him a cold. It's simple and works
instantly. We see this a lot, for some reason,
with detectives. Usually, pros use this one to
bring someone down to a more human level
than either the hero or villain. It's the guy or
girl who the audience is going to
underestimate, the detective who figures it
all out or the ally who comes to the rescue at
the last second.

Tip #4
Go against the grain with a single
characteristic. Figure out what purpose this
minor character serves and give her an
eccentricity that the reader would never
expect. For example, a hit man with Coke-
bottle thick glasses or a waitress who can't
add two numbers together, or a desk clerk
who has an accent so thick that no one can

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understand him. Look at what they do and
figure out how to add one eccentricity to
make her interesting. Notice we said "one."
This technique seems to work best when the
character is otherwise normal except for this
one idiosyncrasy.

What Exactly is a Character Arc?

We've all heard the loose definitions, "It's

how the character changes during your
story." Or, "It's what happens to your
character to change him." Your character
should travel an arc, which redefines his or
her understanding of life. But, can we be
more specific? We've found and isolated
two specific kinds of character arc.

Change in Behavior

Usually when we talk about "character arc,"

we're referring to the movement a character
makes from unhealthy behavior in the way
they live life, to realizing they're making a
mistake, to changing views and behavior.

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Let's see if we can create an example of this
type of arc.

Bob has a goal. (He's looking for

A character flaw or bad attitude
keeps him from attaining the goal.
(He can't open up to women.)
He doesn't see this as a problem,
assuming his failure with women is
because of other reasons. (He has
no money.)
Either another character or the
story circumstances show Bob the
err of his ways. (He goes out with
his dry cleaner and she points out
his problem.)
Someone he cares about confirms
it. (His sister says the woman's
Bob forces himself to change his
behavior and it's a disaster. (He
tries to open up to the woman but
tells way too much.)

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He realizes the reason behind the
character flaw. (He's afraid of being
Bob saves the relationship with the
woman just in the nick of time by
confessing his deepest secret.
This change allows him to solve the
problem or complete the story goal.
(Bob finds love.)

This is still fairly simplistic, but gives you

an idea of what a character arc should do.
There's another form of character arc where
we don't see a change in behavior. The story
goal remains the same, but the reason for
completing it changes.

Change in Motivation

The classic example of this is Luke

Skywalker. He begins his journey by joining
the rebel fight against the Federation for
revenge -- they killed his aunt and uncle. By
the end, his motivation has changed. He's

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now part of the more universal fight of good
vs. evil. He's also trying to impress the
Princess, but mostly, he's joined the rebels in
heart and action. His actions are the same,
but his motivations have become noble.
Let's see how this would outline:

Luke starts off a farm kid with

farm-kid ideas about what's out
His aunt and uncle are murdered,
inspiring him to join the rebel fight.
Obi warns him against revenge as a
He rescues the Princess, gaining
confidence and a love interest.
Through the Princess, he comes to
understand the larger battle.
He joins the fight to destroy the
Death Star and uses his inner
strength to do it.

The bottom line with character arc is that

some established characteristic in a person

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changes. By the way, this is not always for
the better. In a villain's world, he may
become more desperate and dangerous. He
slips down the slope towards a less healthy
position. But, in the hero's world, she
becomes a better person in the process with
a new and improved view of the world.

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The Seven Deadly Sins and Character

The famous (or is it infamous?) Seven

Deadly Sins can be a great source for
interesting motivations for the bad guy of
your story. Most heroes also have issues
with the deadly seven. As do most people in
the real world. Picking one as your
character's "theme" can be a great start to
creating an interesting and universal
character. Here they are:

1. Pride
2. Greed
3. Envy
4. Anger (including revenge)
5. Lust
6. Gluttony
7. Sloth

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Using Stress to Reveal Character:

Characters change or act differently when

under fire. A tough cop can suddenly break
down and cry or a meek librarian can leap
into battle. What happens to your character
in tough situations?

Tip #1:
Know your character's arc. Where is he or
she going? Is she going to overcome some
weakness or slip further down into mental
instability? (In Character Pro, the arc is
related to the level of healthiness in a
character: Heroes get more healthy, while
villains get more unhealthy.) When the first
signs of trouble arrive in the story, we may
see a glimpse of which direction the
character is going in his or her arc. For
example, a weak-willed sloth may get
motivated to help someone, pulling a child
from a burning car. The other option is to go
the complete opposite way in the arc so we
see a glimpse of them in a state of complete
unhealthiness. For example, a weak-willed

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sloth may watch frozen while the car burns.
Either option relates to where the arc is
going and both add drama and conflict to the

Tip #2:
As a story progresses, the tension level
generally increases. This ascending tension
level creates changes in the character. Lower
levels may cause a character to slip further
down the scale into unhealthiness. For
instance, a shy guy who can't overcome his
shyness may find himself in front of the
whole school and suddenly passes out or
can't speak. Higher levels will usually drive
a character to face these fears to be able to
get out of the stressful situation, thereby
curing the problem. For example, someone
who has been in denial about something
may be forced to face the truth. Or, if the
same shy guy from above suddenly learned
terrorists were about to attack the school, he
may make a stand and grow very healthy,
very quickly--which leads to a more
pronounced, definitive arc. He was heading

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that way anyway, the stressful situation
helped him move more quickly down the

Tip #3:
Dialogue is affected by stress. In most
"modern" stories, talking a lot or rambling is
seen as unhealthy, while not talking is seen
as healthy (not always true in real life). At
the lower levels of stress in the story, we
might see a character's mind rambling,
confused, and experiencing disorganized
thoughts. Under serious stress, this same
character may experience a moment of
clarity no one expected, including herself.
Whether you put such a moment of high
stress early and deal with the fallout during
the rest of the story, or later in the story
where it would come in handy for the hero
(or villain) is up to you.

As you can see, stress can be a fantastic tool

for revealing character. Under extreme
pressure the creative juices start to flow for
the character and great change is possible--

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not only in the advancement of the story, but
in the advancement of the character. This
tool, however, in the wrong hands can make
things more confusing and difficult.

Twelve Stages for Plotting the Main

Characters Growth

1. The main characters shadow

(Back story):

The shadow event in a characters

past that looms over his everyday
actions and sensibilities. The
purpose of developing your
protagonists shadow is to find out
more about him and the cause of
his problems and desires. It will
give you important insights as to
why he is acting the way he does
and why he must change. While
you should put a great deal of time
and thought into developing your
characters back story, it is a
mistake to feel compelled to

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include your audience in it or to
always start your film there. It is
far more effective to let these
details unfold gradually throughout
the script, rather than to
dramatically spell them out for the

2. The main characters inner flaw:

There are two main types of stories:

those where the main character
undergoes change, and those where
he is an agent for change. The best
films and the best writers become
proficient in the former, as it is the
most difficult and rewarding.

You determine your main

characters inner flaw through the
theme of your story.

Determining a characters inner

flaw is one of the most delicate and
complex challenges a screenwriter

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faces. Your main character must
be shown to have a problem
without destroying his or her

The best way to develop inner

flaws in your main character is to
mine dramatic situations and
character traits from within your
theme, and then weigh the
characters actions, desires and
beliefs in relation to those of their
allies and opponents.

3. The moral consequence of the

inner flaw:

For every action there is a reaction.

For every deep psychological
problem within, there is a deep
moral consequence extending
without. This law of conflict and
consequence determines the next
stage in the development of internal
structure. Your hero must not only

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be shown to be suffering from an
inner flaw, but his or her actions
must be shown to be impacting
others as well. It is this moral
connection within and without that
must be confronted and ultimately
corrected throughout the course of
the story. This gradual
confrontation and correction
dynamic comprises the bare
skeleton of your storys plot,
character growth and story arc.

The dynamics are as follows:

The first scenes reveal the

protagonists inner flaw
and the consequence it has
on the world order.
The next step will be to
reveal the protagonist in
direct confrontation with
the storys antagonist or

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The next phase of
character plot is to show
the protagonist struggling
with his own allies.
Finally, the protagonist
must face their deeper,
most inner flaw, and apply
the right solution to defeat
their opponent and obtain
their desire.

4. The main characters immediate


Someone wants something very,

very badly, but must change
somehow in order to defeat an
opponent and obtain his desire.

This want or desire forms the

central dynamic that fuels the
characters growth and story plot.
There are often two or more types
of desire lines within the course of

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one film: the immediate desire and
the overarching desire.

While the immediate desire may

(and often does) change, the
overarching desire generally does
not. While your protagonist may
make various choice along the way
that veer away from the
overarching desire, in the end he or
she must fail admirably in
achieving it, obtain it against all
odds, or find something much,
much better to replace it.

The purpose of establishing an

immediate desire line is to further
define your main character in the
beginning, so that after the inciting
incident the audience is ready for
your hero to undergo an immediate
change. This changed desire will
forge the objective storyline and
provide the spine for future acts.

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5. The inciting incident:

The inciting incident will force

your protagonist out of the first act
and into the second with great
thrust and momentum. Obviously,
this event will differ from one story
to the next and vary according to
what external structure you choose.

6. The main characters

overarching desire as a result of
the inciting incident:

You need to set-up an immediate

desire for the protagonist and then
change it to the overarching one
after the inciting incident. This
creates a more fully developed
storyline and drives the character
through the second act with
increasing momentum.

7. The main characters objective to

achieve his overarching desire:

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Here we set up a plan of action or

an objective of how the hero goes
about obtaining his overarching
desire. This objective is a way of
layering in and foreshadowing
certain expectations the audience
will anticipate as the hero advances
towards his goal. The operating
maxim here is to give the audience
what they want, but never what
they expect. This frees the writer
to employ the sleight of hand
maneuvers of a magician in order
to keep the audience in suspense.

We set up a series of anticipated

actions for the audience to expect
and then constantly challenge to
keep the audience guessing.

The main characters objective is

directly related to the objective
storyline and to the premise of
story. It is the way in which the

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protagonist proceeds along a
certain path in order to achieve his
desire. It is important to develop
and communicate this to your
audience, as it is how they track the
success or failure of your heros
decisions. It is up to you to
complicate this plan and effectively
obstruct the heros progress. The
nature of this obstruction comes in
the development of an ingenious
antagonist with a carefully
delineated objective of his own.

8. Developing the
Antagonist/Opponent: One who
is opposed to or strives with
another in any kind of contest; an
opponent or adversary. We size up
the adversary/antagonist by how
effectively he obstructs, competes
with or attacks the heros progress.
Very often the gauge of the
opponents effectiveness is based
on his degree of familiarity with the

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hero. Sometimes the external
structure we choose will determine
the level of familiarity between
hero and opponent.

The development of the antagonist

in relationship to the hero forms the
basis of the central conflict of every

The adversary is directly connected

with the protagonists inner flaw
and outward desire. To develop the
best adversarial relationship for
your hero, determine what your
main character wants, and what
their innermost stumbling block is
to getting it. When you have the
answer, you can create the best
adversarial opponent to impede
their progress on both fronts, their
inner flaw and their outward desire.

Now we will have to dramatize

these character flaws and conflicts.

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As a screenwriter, it is not enough
to have worked out a logical theme
in your head. You will need to
prove your point dramatically on
paper through intense conflict and
well-defined characterizations.
You cant just have a bunch of
talking heads moralizing and telling
what they want and us who they
are. You will have to reveal these
psychological and dramatic
developments through action. You
must show these events unfolding
rather than merely tell the audience
about them. Create, dont narrate.

You will need to orchestrate these

conflicts through a sequence of
carefully chosen dramatic events
over a common ground of conflict.
If we have a young man who
aspires to be like someone with
great riches and respect, but is
secretly very unhappy, then we
have achieved the oppositional

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unity between protagonist and
antagonist. Though they are
entirely different in their values,
neither of them is living a life
based on their own terms.

9. The conflict between Protagonist

and Antagonist:

The hero engages in battle on two

fronts. First, he struggles with his
inner flaw, while striving to
achieve his overarching desire
which is in turn obstructed by the
opponent, who also attacks our
heros inner flaw.

10. The main characters realization

as a result of the conflict:

At this point the subjective

storyline (theme) converges with
the objective storyline (premise) to
become a wholly expanded
thematic revelation delivered

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with all the impact of a lightning

In the best of films, the audience

shares the heros final revelation.

11. The main character does or does

not obtain his overarching desire:

Someone wants something very,

very badly, but he must change in
order to defeat his opponent and
obtain his desire. We can use this
general statement to determine the
end of our story. For structural
purposes it is not necessary that the
hero obtain his desire; in fact, it
works just as well if he doesnt. In
each case the proper choice is
determined by the authors theme.
What is your point? What do you
want to prove with your theme at
the end of the film?

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The most important thing is to try
to leave the fulfillment or non-
fulfillment of desire the last
possible moment. The reasoning
behind this is to allow the audience
to track your heros progress up to
the moment of fulfillment. If you
allow your main character to
achieve, or fail to achieve, their
desire early on, and then use the
remainder of the film to tie up
loose ends, you are only creating a
series of false climaxes, which will
wear on the audiences patience.

12. The impact on the world of story:

This is where the moral

consequence expands to the world
of story, after the hero fights his
opponent. If the hero has a glaring
deficiency at the storys inception,
then it stands to reason it will be
corrected after being purged by
battle. This moral correction

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should be developed to further
impact the community at large.

Finding the Perfect Tragic Past:

Giving a character a tragic past can be a fast

and effective way to quickly dimensionalize
a character. And the most common tragic
past event is the death of a loved one.
Somehow a relative, lover, or friend meets
with an untimely demise. This loss
invariably affects the story and how the
character reacts to events in the story.
Perhaps he or she feels guilty about the
death or has vowed to track down and
destroy the responsible bad guy. We've seen
it a million times and most of the time it
works. It's worked for stories in the past and
it will work for many more stories in the
future. However, if you're looking for a
tragic past that's a little different, perhaps a
touch more fresh, there might be a couple of
ways to do that. Let's take a somewhat
morbid look at ways to create some fresh
tragic events.

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Usually, when we talk about a tragic past
we're talking about a single event where the
character loses something important to him
or her. Either a bad guy or a perceived bad
guy causes this event. And the character
usually reacts with either guilty feelings or
feelings of revenge. Perhaps it was an
accident that this character blames himself
for. Or perhaps it was a decision that your
character regrets. Three basic components
make up a tragic event. Let's see if there are
ways to loosen up the clichs by taking a
closer look at each.

Who or what was lost?

It doesn't necessarily have to be a relative, a

lover, or a friend. It could be a complete
stranger, or acquaintance. It could also be a
thing: the family farm, a beloved sled, a car,
a robot... something that was important to
him or her. Or maybe it was more
conceptual, like childhood innocence or the
character's virginity. This is the area where
creativity can really pay off. Brainstorm a

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list of things your character may have lost.
Consider what's important in your life and
what would happen if you lost it? Think
back in your life when you really loved
someone or something. How would your life
be different now if you had lost that
something? Now think about your character,
what person or item has this character lost
and how has that loss affected him?

How was the character involved?

How the character was involved is important

and doesn't have to be limited to the most
common one: he witnessed the tragedy.
Your character may have directly caused the
tragedy or simply thinks he or she caused
the tragedy. Or maybe he or she heard it
over a radio or telephone. Maybe it didn't
really happen at all and he or she imagined
it. Maybe he thinks he imagined it, but it
really happened. Again, creativity in this
area can really payoff in developing a
creative tragic past.

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How did this event affect the character?

This too is an area where a little creativity

can make a common tragic past a little more
interesting. Sure, the event could have
caused feelings of guilt or wanting to get
revenge. Or it could cause a flight/avoidance
response where the character has completely
blocked it out and denies that it happened.
Or, if he or she was responsible in some
way, it could cause a desire for redemption.
Or perhaps being involved in this tragic
event has caused him or her to turn evil -
playing out the tragedy again and again.

A few minutes thinking of interesting ways

to freshen up a tragic event will really make
the character come alive and will create a
character that audiences will love to learn
more about.

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Character Evolution

In movie terms, any time you move a

character from one level up to another, you
create a surge of energy, inspiration, or
aliveness in your audience. People love to
participate in these shifts in character
evolution even if the character only moves
up one level.

If two people are at developmental levels

that are too far apart, its unlikely that any
real connection can take place between
them. Its unbelievable they could have a
good, healthy relationship.

Level One: Self

A Level One character is still at survival

level, completely self-centered. This
characters value system is simple: I, me,
mine. He is the proverbial Lone Wolf,
looking out for Number One. He is selfish,
self-serving and often self-obsessed. This
does not make for a very sympathetic

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character; but in movies, Level One
protagonists almost always move up to a
higher level before the end.

Level Two: Bonding

Here, the characters perspective

encompasses two people. Often these are
lovers, but they could also be partners,
siblings, or parent and child. The viewpoint
of the Level Two character is: The two of
us are all that matters. Level Two pairs are
self-contained and exclusive. If they are
lovers, it is the kind of relationship where
they could lock themselves in a motel room
for a week and, short of nuclear war, not
give a damn about anything in the outside

Level Three: Family

A Level Three character is centered in Clan

mentality. Godfather mentality a person
enmeshed in and loyal to a group of any size
that excludes others. He or she thinks: Me

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and mine. Forget the rest of the world; my
family is all that matters. The family
could be any small, closed group. An army
platoon, football team, group of prisoners,
street gang, or actual family that is
threatened will build this kind of wall
around itself.

A Level Three character is anyone

completely immersed within that groups
structure. Their points of view do not
extend beyond those familial ties.

Level Four: Community

As the character raises his focus, he/she

begins to see the whole community and
begins to think more in terms of the good of
the larger group. This character thinks: My
community, my country. The horizon
widens to include a broader arena. War
heroes showered with medals and the
highest honors (even though they may have
slaughtered innocents of the enemy nation)
are the epitome of Level Four thinking. A

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Level Four character may have risked life
and limb for the greater good, but not the
good of all. That would be the next level.

Level Five: Humanity

This is the level at which people like

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother
Theresa lived. A Level Five character lives
in a more spiritually enlightened reality,
recognizing the value of every human being.
Level Five often involves the characters
relationship to God or an awareness of
moral responsibility to the planet. Think:
selfless. Spiritual epiphany. Filled with
love and joy.

Devolution of Character = Tragedy

If you take a character down through any

number of levels, it becomes tragedy, the
devolution of character. Once a character
starts on the path of devolution, it can be a
devastating and rapid downhill slide.

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Level Zero: Animal Mentality

This is not a moral judgment, but indicates a

very low level of mental processing. It is
human being as animal.

The shift from Level Zero (acting or

thinking like a wild animal), evolving up
even a single step to a Level One, can be
deeply moving.

Sub-Zero Levels: Human Being as

Inhuman Monster

This level of character is rarely the

protagonist, and rarely ever makes any shift
of consciousness. These are your
sociopaths, psychopaths, sadists, Gestapo,
and serial murderer types. Not much can be
said in terms of evolution here, but we need
to include this as a category of character.
They exist.

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The Top Ten Character Tips

1. Don't underestimate the importance

of knowing the character spine.
Truly great characters have an
innate consistency that can only
come from knowing the character's
inner workings. Spend the time
developing the spine. Your
characters will be better

2. Try writing without character

names. This is a well-guarded
professional secret used by
hundreds of pros. When you write
your characters, don't write who's
saying what (you can add it later).
This way, you are sure to make
each character speak in different
voices just to keep it straight in
your own mind as you write. It
forces you to make each character

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3. Avoid basing characters on friends

and family.Besides the obvious
political implications
(Thanksgiving is bad enough),
when a writer does this, he or she is
basically mimicking the outer traits
of a person. You never truly know
how your characters tick.

4. Make your hero and your villain

the same personality type.
This way the hero and villain are
fighting for the same basic things
and have an innate understanding
of each other -- only the hero is
coming from a healthier place. A
moment of growth comes for the
hero when he realizes he could be
like the bad guy if he didn't have
inner strength. He literally is
overcoming an evil element in
himself when he defeats the villain.

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5. Study the personality types
generally used in your genre.
For instance, the "Boss" personality
type is usually the hero in an action
movie. This can clue you into
which personality types work great
with which genres.

6. Ignore Tip #5.

Sometimes putting a personality
type that's not usually in that genre
can create an incredibly
unpredictable and wonderful story
dynamic. In fact, personally, I'd
advise using a type not usually
found in your genre to shake things

7. Make your characters consistent.

All your characters should
differentiate themselves from each
other and do it very consistently
throughout the entire story. Break
it, and you'll lose your audience.
Keep notes on your character as

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you write (easy to do with
Character Pro's Writing Mode

8. Study dialogue styles.

Each type has its own style of
talking. Make sure you define that
style before taking on writing
dialogue. It will keep it true to the

9. Try to think of every character as

starring in their own story.
You have a hero you're focusing all
your attention on. But, to get truly
interesting supporting characters
think about what their story would
be. Could you write a different
story focusing on them?

10. Play with your character's

Different people expect different
things to happen in certain
situations. Some believe they'll fail

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at whatever they try and others
assume victory. Define what those
expectations are... then, make sure
things don't work out that way. It
makes for great scenes and great

How To Differentiate Characters:

In this tip section we'll focus on creating

differentiated characters, making each
character unique and consistent

What else can you do to set your characters

apart from each other? Professionals have
tricks to keep characters differentiated.

Tip #1:
This is a subtle trick that has more impact
than you might think. It's based on the
observation that some people say names
before a sentence and others after. "Bobby,
how's that carburetor coming?" vs. "How's
that carburetor coming, Bobby?" Decide on

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which style your character uses and stick
with it. If you have, for instance, two
characters that work together and you want
to keep them unique, try this trick. After a
while, the reader won't have to keep track of
the speaker, they'll know instantly by the

Also, some people start sentences with

"well," or "okay." Others end with "right?" a
lot. Try to keep these tags to a minimum, but
if you use them, use them consistently and
you'll find your characters better defined.

Tip #2:
Ever notice how some people seem to have
well-thought-out sentences using an
extensive vocabulary, while others just blurt
stuff out? Here's an easy way to get that
effect into your dialogue. First, write a
rough draft of your conversation like usual--
be as off-the-top-of-the-head as possible.
Make sure all the sub-text is there and the
points are coming through. When you get to
polishing the dialogue, ignore one character-

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-whatever came out in the rough is how it
will be--and polish the other person's
dialogue with a thesaurus and grammar
check, etc. You can take this polishing to
whatever extremes you want, but subtly
over-polishing one character while under-
polishing another creates a very realistic

Tip #3:
Sometimes a writer will put a recurring
motif into a story that gives it cohesiveness.
You can also do this, to a certain extent,
with a character. Choose different motifs for
each character and you'll get a very effective
separation. One character may have a food
motif, where everything he says or does
somehow subtly refers to food, or money, or
clothing. Sometimes subtle motifs can
contrast two characters on a sub-conscious
level. If you build a motif of greed with one
character and a motif of giving with another,
when they meet, their speech will contrast,
and conflict will be more believable. This
can be especially effective if the references

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are subtle, although it also works if they lay
it all on the table.

The secret to subplots

There are 4 types of subplots: ones useless,

ones dangerous, ones effective, and one is
absolutely vital if you want the climax of
your screenplay to work.

Subplots matter far more than their name

implies. If a screenplay dies in Act 2 or Act
3, its just as likely the problem lies in the
subplots as in the main narrative.

Lets take a look at the 4 different types of

subplot, and see how you can avoid the
useless, be wary of the dangerous, embrace
the effective, and ensure that your
screenplay includes the one subplot it
categorically needs.

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Type 1: The useless subplot

If youre ever sitting in a cinema and youre

bored out of your skull, theres a good
chance youre bang in the middle of a Type
1 subplot.

The useless subplot, as its name none too

subtly suggests, serves no narrative purpose.
It doesnt advance the central plot. It doesnt
develop the character. It doesnt help
explore some aspect of the theme.

Its generally there because the writer got to

about page 35, looked at the vast empty
spaces of Act 2 lying ahead of them, and
thought, crikey, how the hell am I going to
fill all those pages? I know! Subplot!!!

Fargo is a great film but what's the purpose

of this subplot?

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The Coen Brothers are great film-makers
and Fargo is one of their finest but Im
going to be so bold as to suggest this Oscar
winner includes a dreaded Type 1 subplot. If
anyone can tell me what purpose is served
by Marges dinner with her slightly crazy
high school buddy, Mike, Id love to hear it.
(And fortunately someone has see below
in the Comments. Thanks Kathleen and

Given their fecundity, its unlikely the

Coens were looking to rack up a couple of
easy pages here. But nor is it clear what bit
of movie magic happens in the scene that
made it impossible for them to leave this
subplot out. Its a mystery to me.

This might seem self-evident, but the first

tip I have regarding subplots is this: make
sure they serve some narrative purpose.

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Type 2: The dangerous subplot

The second type of subplot is the thematic

subplot. This is where you explore, possibly
with minor characters, some other
dimension of your premise what it is
youre trying to say. One of my favorite
romantic comedies, Moonstruck, has a
couple of thematic subplots.

The main narrative is about whether Loretta

(Cher) will marry her pathetic fianc Johnny
Cammareri (Danny Aiello) or ditch him for
his more passionate brother Ronny (Nic
Cage) who, to complicate matters, she
sleeps with while delivering the wedding
invite. But there are two other subplots.

Her father, Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) is

having an affair with the aptly named Mona,
and her mother, Rose (Olympia Dukakis) is
getting hit on by a lecherous lecturer (John

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The subplot with Rose (Olympia Dukakis)
and the jaded lecturer (John Mahoney)
explores theme but doesn't have any impact
on the throughline of the film.

While its true that Loretta and Ronny do

run into Cosmo and Mona at the opera, I
wouldnt say that the main narrative is
affected in any material way by either of
these two subplots. They are just there to
explore other dimensions of love, lust and

Do they work in Moonstruck? Yes, they do.

So why do I call thematic subplots
dangerous? Because not all of us are as
talented John Patrick Shanley. He won the
Oscar for this screenplay Oscar and was
nominated again for Doubt. This guy is
seriously good so he, like Aaron Sorkin, can
get away with stuff that mere mortals cant.

But, in the absence of prodigious skill, the

type 2 thematic subplot can easily slip a

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classification and become an utterly useless
Type 1 subplot.

For the developing writer, I would urge

caution in relation to thematic subplots and
encourage you, at least initially, to focus on
trying to include more of the next two types
of subplot.

Type 3: The effective subplot

Obviously wed like to our subplots to be

effective but how do we achieve that? The
secret to successful subplots is to have them
ultimately come back and have an impact on
the main narrative.

However insignificant it might seem upon

introduction, a good subplot should
eventually escalate the drama by making it
harder for your protagonist to achieve their
goal. A subplot is effective and justifies its
place in the script if it ultimately causes a
serious complication for the hero.

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The subplot about Zac's black market
dealings triggers the transformation of the
protagonist in An Officer and a Gentleman

Lets take a look at An Officer and a


The central narrative is about Zac Mayo

(Richard Gere), a smartarse from the wrong
side of the tracks, trying to graduate from
the navys aviator school. Thats the

But Zac has a little black market business

going in shiny shoes and belt buckles to help
guys make sure they get their weekend
liberty leave. This subplot is very
important. Why? Because it ultimately
comes back and affects that throughline.

Drill Sergeant Foley (Lou Gossett Jr)

Zacs mentor and antagonist discovers this
illicit sideline and wants him to quit from

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the program. I want your D.O.R.
(Discharge On Request).

This triggers the supreme ordeal that is so

important to the transformation of the

Its a simple subplot thats introduced

without fanfare but it ultimately creates a
complication that threatens the heros
pursuit of his goal and triggers evolution of
the character. Thats an effective subplot,
wouldnt you say? It works because it
complicates and escalates the drama.

In Dead Poets Society, the throughline is

about the boys embracing a more romantic
view of life under the inspiration of their
charismatic English teacher, Mr. Keating
(Robin Williams). But there is also a subplot
about the relationship between Neil (Robert
Sean Leonard) and his father that has a
monumental impact on the throughline.

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The relationship btw Neil Perry (Robert
Sean Leonard) and his repressive father is
the subplot that triggers the Act 2 Turning
Point in Dead Poets Society

Knowing his repressive father wont allow

him to play Puck in A Midsummer Nights
Dream, Neil forges his signature on a
consent form. This happens early in Act 2
and Neil has a great old laugh as he mimics
his father at the typewriter so we dont think
a whole lot of it. But a seed has been sown.

When his father discovers the deception, he

yanks Neil out of the school, and threatens
him with military school, which triggers
Neils suicide, which in turn provides the
unlikely hero, Todd (Ethan Hawke) with the
opportunity to literally take a stand at the

If this subplot werent there, Neil lives and

Todd might forever continue to live life in
the shadows. This climax not only affects

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the throughline, it facilitates its stunning
conclusion. By any measure, Id say thats
an effective subplot.

In When Harry Met Sally, there is a subplot

involving their best friends, Jess (Bruno
Kirby) and Marie (Carrie Fisher). On the
surface, this might look like its just a
thematic subplot, the rapidity of their
movement from meeting to marriage
contrasting sharply with the slow burn of the
relationship between the eponymous central
characters. But it does more than that.

The subplot involving best friends Jess

(Bruno Kirby) and Marie (Carrie Fisher)
provides the trigger for the Act 2 Turning
Point in When Harry Met Sally.

The wedding of Jess and Marie forces Harry

and Sally, whose friendship has been
severed after they finally slept together, to
come together under the one roof again. This
triggers a fractious exchange in the

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restaurant kitchen where Sally slugs Harry,
triggering the Act 2 Turning Point. No Jess
and Marie and the writer, Nora Ephron,
would have to have contrived some other
way for this crisis to be precipitated.
Because of this subplot it happens absolutely
organically. That makes it a really good

However, there is a further class of subplot

that matters even more than this. This is the
one subplot you absolutely need if you want
your screenplay to sing.

The one subplot you really need

In my last post, I revealed the secret to

effective subplots. Here I unveil the most
important type of subplot.

To illustrate this critical subplot, Im going

to use examples from Tootsie. Why?
Because I cant think of a screenplay that

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makes better use of subplots than this 1982
comedy classic.

The central narrative of Tootsie the

throughline is about an unemployable
actor, Michael Dorsey, trying to maintain
the pretence that he is Dorothy Michaels,
one of Americas favorite daytime
actresses. This is his want.

To make life difficult for Michael, the

writers introduce several highly effective
subplots story lines that cause serious
complications for the hero in the pursuit of
this want.

Michael is working on a play with

flat mate, Michael
Fellow actor on the show, John
Van Horn hits on Dorothy
Michael sleeps with platonic friend,
Michaels in love with Julie but she
thinks hes Dorothy

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Julies father falls for and
eventually proposes to Dorothy

These are all great subplots because they all

make it harder for Michael to maintain his
duplicitous life and collectively they
escalate the drama to a mad frenzy by the
end of Act 2.

But one of the subplots does something

more than just complicate the quest. It
makes him question his want entirely. Thats
the subplot involving Julie (Jessica Lange).
This is the subplot thats absolutely critical
to the story and its what I call the need

In a screenplay teeming with subplots, the

one that ultimately causes Michael Dorsey
(Dustin Hoffman) to question his want is his
relationship with Julie (Jessica Lange).

In Tootsie, Michaels overbearing want is

this desire to be an actor. As usual, the

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protagonists want is all about external
achievement. Its about the ego. But thats
not what he really needs. What he really
needs is love. What he really needs is Julie.
In fact, while his want is to act, his need is
to stop acting and get real.

Unfortunately for Michael, he cant be

Dorothy, successful actress, and have Julie.
In order to get what he needs hes going to
have to give up what he wants and go back
to being unemployable Michael Dorsey.
Thats the dilemma hes faced with at the
Act 2 Turning Point: want vs. need.

At the Act 3 climax, he opts for giving

himself a chance with Julie and reveals his
true identity live on national television. He
chooses need over want, showing us hes
changed, and earning his spurs as a narrative

Emotionally powerful movies tend to have

those 3 narrative elements:

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1. The want thats about external
2. Subplots that complicate the quest
for the want
3. A need subplot thats at odds with
the want

But its this final element, the need subplot,

that can be so helpful in setting up for a
dramatic and emotionally powerful
conclusion. Why?

Because it lets you present your hero with a

dilemma at the Act 2 Turning Point. Will
they choose to continue pursuing their want?
Or will they sacrifice their want in order to
access the more interior pleasures of their

If they choose their want, they show they

havent changed and thats what will
happen in a tragedy.

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If they opt for their need, they prove to us
that they are altered and qualify as a hero
in the narrative context. They might not win
the prize but theyll gain the more
enduring pleasures of the interior.

How to introduce a need subplot

Since its about fulfillment, the need subplot

is almost but not always about love.

Lets look at how some great films have

used the need subplot to create a dilemma
for the protagonist and set up for a powerful

Need subplot type 1: Love interest

In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill

(Cary Grant) is mistaken for George Kaplan,
a man who is in very grave danger of being
killed by bad guy, Phillip Vandamm (James
Mason). Thornhills want is to sort out this

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misunderstanding before he gets killed a
not unreasonable want.

But that want is complicated by the fact that

Thornhill meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie
Saint) while hiding on a train. Initially, he
falls for her, then he believes her to be
Vandamms moll before finally learning that
shes working for the good guys and will die
if he walks away.

The need subplot that forces Roger

Thornhill (Cary Grant) to question his want
is his relationship with Eve Kendall (Eva
Marie Saint) - which reaches its conclusion
on Mt Rushmore.

From the inciting incident in Act 1, all

Thornhill has wanted to do is get the hell out
of this mess and go back to his selfish life as
an advertising man and Mummys boy. But
now he has a dilemma. Get your selfish
want, and the woman you love will die

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thereby denying you what you need: love.
Cue Act 2 Crisis.

At the Act 3 Climax, Thornhill turns his

back on his want and memorably rescues his
need on the sculpted Presidents faces of Mt

Social Network too sets up this tension

between want and need. Mark Zuckerberg
desires to be rich and famous and creates
Facebook to achieve that external want. But
his need is love in the specific form of
Erica Albright. The films tragic power in
that final scene comes from the fact that he
gets his want beyond his wildest dreams
yet his need is still out of reach, because, at
a character level, hes failed to grow. As I
noted in an earlier post, this screenplay, for
all its verbal brilliance, would have fallen in
a heap without this one critical subplot. The
need subplot.

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Need subplot type 2: the love triangle

In films involving a love triangle, the want

and the need are both potential romantic

Look at Bridget Joness Diary, for example.

The throughline is that Bridget (Renee
Zellwegger) wants bad boy boss Daniel
Cleaver (Hugh Grant). Thats an external
desire because Daniel represents what every
young woman is meant to aspire to: a guy
whos handsome, successful, witty and
charming. Thats her want.

Bridget Jones has to choose between her

dishy want, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant)
and her more substantial need, Mark Darcy
(Colin Firth).

But then there is the subplot with family

friend, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth). Hes not
as dishy but he offers more satisfying
pleasures. Daniel offers achievement

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while Mr. Darcy offers fulfillment. The film
is about Bridget struggling to overcome her
desire to have what she wants and realize
what she really needs.

Need subplot type 3: Friendship

But the need subplot doesnt have to be

about romantic love. It can be about

In An Officer and a Gentleman, Zack

(Richard Gere) has a relationship with Paula
(Debra Winger) but this isnt the subplot
that drives a wedge between want and need.
At no point in the story does he have to
choose between graduating from aviator
school and having Paula. That dilemma is
created by his friendship with fellow aviator
candidate Sid Worley (David Keith).

Zack is a loner who hasnt ever had a real

friend. But early in the film he bonds with
this unpretentious Okie and its Sid who, in

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Zacks hour of need, sticks by him (He
speeds past in a powerboat and moons Drill
Sergeant Foley.)

The need subplot in An Officer and a

Gentleman is not the romance with Paula
(Debra Winger), but the friendship with Sid
Worley (David Keith).

So when Sid is duped by a Puget Sound

Deb and commits suicide, Zack feels
rightly or wrongly that Foley is partially to
blame. So he challenges him to a martial arts
duel. If he wants to achieve his want and
graduate, this is not a smart thing to do. But
he does it because his need the love of his
buddy has overpowered his want, telling
us hes been altered for all time.

Need subplot type 4: The family

Another type of need subplot is where the

love exists not with a lover or a friend but
within the family.

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In Little Miss Sunshine, almost all of the
characters have external objectives that are
all about want.

Richard (Greg Kinnear) wants to have his 9

Step Refuse to Lose program published.
Frank (Steve Carrel) wants to be Americas
pre-eminent Proust scholar. Dwayne (Paul
Dano) wants to be a jet pilot. And Olive
(Abigail Breslin) wants to be Little Miss

In Little Sunshine, Olive's outrageous dance

is the act that finally releases her
dysfunctional family from their wants and
lets them embrace their need - love.

But what this highly dysfunctional family

really needs is love. When Richard is asked
to remove Olive from the stage at the finale,
but refuses and instead joins her in dancing
to Chics Le Freak, he shows us
fulfillment beats achievement every time.

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They have all failed in their external goals,
but the family is whole again.

Need subplot type 5: Self-expression

I said that the need subplot was almost

always about love. One exception I can
think of is where its about self-expression.

In Baz Luhrmanns first (and best) film,

Strictly Ballroom, the protagonist Scott
(Paul Mercurio) has a desperate desire to
win the Pan Pacific ballroom
championships. Thats his want. As usual,
its about exterior achievement. The ego.

While there is some romance with his

dancing partner, Fran (Tara Morice), Scotts
need isnt love. The story is not going to
force him to choose between his desire for
the championship and his love of Fran. It
presents him with a different sort of

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The need subplot here is the discovery of a
different, more passionate form of dancing
that lets Scott truly be himself for the first
time. This is his need.

In Strictly Ballroom, Scott's need is not love

but to have the courage to dance his own

But, the catch is that if he dances in this

style, he wont win the championship. His
want is opposed with a need. What will he
do? He makes the heros choice and dances
the Paso Doble, which denies him the prize
but delivers the fulfillment all human beings

Summary of the one subplot you really


As human beings, we often lose sight of

whats really important. We think its about
getting the prize and having the toys, despite
experience telling us that lifes great joys are

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internal rather than external. A great
transformative story reminds us of this
eternal truth. How do you do that? With a
subplot that offers your protagonist what
they need but that requires them to give up
on their illusory want.

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Beginning to Understand Great Dialogue:

We've all asked teachers or other writers

what makes great dialogue and we've all
heard the same answer: "Have your
characters not say what they really mean."
Okay, this is sound advice -- but a little
vague. Let's see if we can dig a little deeper.

If we had to use one word to define great

dialogue, what word would be "focus."
Great dialogue has focus. There's never a
word wasted in its intent or execution. Even
when a character seems to be rambling,
every syllable is there to focus the point,
which is that he's insane, or on drugs, or
confused, or mistaken.

As a writer, we have to move the story

along. Every word of dialogue has to help us
do that, but great dialogue does so much
more that simply impart information. There

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are other forms or styles of speech.

1. Complaining
2. Arguing
3. Imparting information
4. Manipulating
5. Joking
6. Planning
7. Pleading
8. Praising

We realize "imparting information" is in

there and most people consider simply
giving information as too "on the nose" and
very bad. There are times when it can be the
perfect form for the moment. If a character
has been under interrogation by the police
for hours and has finally broken. He might
start spouting all the information they need.
This is a rare case, however. When starting
to write dialogue look at the styles listed
above and see which one is best for the
scene you're creating.

Whichever style you choose, it has to be

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chosen for a reason. Listening to a character
arguing can be very realistic and
entertaining. But when it's over, the reader
will be left empty if something hasn't been
accomplished story-wise. Make sure the
style is used for a reason and is part of
building your story. For example, if a man
misses a plane and the airline won't bring
the plane back to the gate and, later, we
learn the plane crashes, which style is best?
Perhaps he tries to manipulate them to bring
it back -- or even better, he complains
loudly. Your character complains about the
plane leaving without him, bringing the
whole terminal into it. Then, when the plane
crashes, suddenly his complaining seems
petty. The chosen style has clued the
audience into his character and served a
purpose in the story.

You can achieve the same "double-duty"

with any of the six styles. If a team of
thieves is planning a heist, we can set up
what's going to happen while showing the
differences in each character by the way

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they approach the planning. Perhaps one guy
isn't into planning, likes to wing it. While
another wants every detail planned out. We
can set up the plan while exposing character.
Focusing on the style can help us focus the
dialogue and why it's there.

We realize we've only scratched the surface,

but defining the dialogue style is the first
step to focusing the dialogue and creating
great moments in your story.

Dialogue is verbal action which pushes the

story forward and which is derived from the
characters needs within the scene.

Dialogue is the easiest way to impart story

and character information. Hence, most new
screenwriters will tend to over-emphasize
dialogue above the other elements, but the
sources of information in a screenplay
should be shared by all the scripts

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Film is primarily a visual medium. Images,
not words, are your basic currency. Hence
the accepted rule is: show, dont tell.

Dialogue performs certain functions:

Providing information
Advancing the story onward and
Deepening the characters by
revealing emotion, mood, feel,
intent (via subtext) and by telling
us what would be difficult, time-
consuming or ponderous via
character action
Revealing incidents and
information (especially motivation)
from the past, i.e. from back story,
so that dialogue can avoid the need
for flashback
Adding to the rhythm and pace of
the script by the ambience it
contributes to each scene and

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contributing to the style of the
Connecting scenes and shots by
providing continuity
Suggesting the presence of objects,
events or persons not seen by using
off-screen (o.s.) dialogue

Some tips:

Avoid passing-the-time-of-day
dialogue: greetings, polite
nothings, goodbyes, etc.
Dont repeat information in
dialogue that has already occurred
elsewhere in the dialogue
Avoid dialect and writing
phonetically: tell the reader when
you introduce the character they
speak with a Scots/New
Jersey/whatever accent. The
occasional gonna or aint is fine
but dont overdo it.

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If you want to create emphasis try
to do it without using exclamation
marks; never italicize dialogue,
dont use capitals (except rarely);
an occasional underlining is okay.
Not every question asked in
dialogue needs to be answered.
The use of silence, a reaction, or
non-reaction can be as/more
powerful than dialogue. Not every
guest ion needs to be answered
with the most obvious reply. An
oblique open or indirect answer
may reveal more about the state of
mind of the responding character.

Ideally, all the dialogue your characters

speak should be caused by their need to get
something in that scene or in a later scene.
The true nature of good screen dialogue is
that it comes from, is caused by and is
driven by the immediate needs of your
character at that specific point in the scene
and that juncture of the plot, and also by

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their longer-term needs of the screenplay

Screen dialogue is not everyday

conversation. What you strive for is
effective dialogue, to give the illusion of real
conversation. Effective dialogue sounds
natural; it conveys the sense of real speech
even through it is more structured than the
wanderings of everyday speech. Effective
dialogue has more economy and directness
than real-life conversation.

Screenwriting is typically lean and

economic. Effective dialogue is sparsely
written, with short sentences of simple
construction, using simple, informal words.
Speeches are brief and crisp. Screen
dialogue is written for the ear, to be listened
to, not for the eye to read. The basic
principle of dialogue (as with all screenplay
description) is: Say More with Less!

Screen dialogue words are used more for

their implicit rather than explicit meaning.

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What is important in dialogue is not the
literal meaning of the words used, but the
meaning being conveyed in the
circumstances of that scene. What is not
said or is left unsaid, can be as important as
what is spoken.

Know what your characters want to say.

If you are struggling with dialogue in your

screenplay, it may be because you arent
really sure what your characters want or
need to say. Once you can get clear on the
characters intentions and desires, you may
find the words come easily. If not, try
asking yourself, Whats the point of this
line? Putting the characters thoughts into
your own words, and then translating that
idea into the characters unique manner of
expression may help give you clarity.

Characters should have distinctive voices.

Dialogue should fit the character, their mood

and emotions in the particular situation, with

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a rhythm and individuality of expression
typical of that character. Make your
dialogue sound like the character, not the

A characters voice is conveyed through

word choice, phrasing, mannerisms,
attitudes, and tone.

Keep character voices consistent.

Often characters voices are clear and

distinct at the beginning of the screenplay,
when the writers concentration is on
establishing the characters. However, soon
as the plot begins, the characters lose their
distinctiveness and become stick figures,
expressing themselves in a very generic
way. So make a special effort to create and
maintain your characters voices throughout
because that will significantly strengthen the
scripts credibility.

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Dialogue should be consistent with the

storys style.

Transparent dialogue sound like everyday

speech and is usually the best choice unless
there is a conspicuously important aspect
you want to emphasize. Transparent
dialogue keeps the focus on the information
being conveyed rather than the packaging,
as anything other than realistic dialogue
tends to call attention to itself.

Theatrical dialogue calls attention to itself

with its stylized use of words. The further
away something is from the norm, the more
attention it draws, so you want to use such a
theatrical element with precision and clarity.

Streamlined dialogue is minimal,

unnaturally terse, even staccato. Many
action characters tend to speak in such a
manner. The style of speech emphasizes
and intentionally reinforces the difference
between the character and ordinary people.

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Dialogue should convey attitude.

Dialogue that adequately conveys

information but no attitude seems lifeless
and artificial. Thats because in real life,
people have attitudes about everything.

Dialogue can also convey characters

attitude toward themselves. Characters
express themselves differently depending on
how comfortable they are saying whats
being said.

Actions speak louder than words.

If you intend to convey an emotion, consider

whether theres an action or gesture that
would express the feeling more effectively
than language.

Dialogue works best when it is underwritten

and understated. Excessive emotion and
spouting platitudes lead to melodrama.

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Avoid long speeches.

Although a few big speeches can work on

stage, long speeches on screen tend to make
viewers feel restless. Because film is a
visual medium, audiences take information
far more easily with their eyes than with
their ears.

Dialogue must have a realistic flow.

Theres nothing more awkward than a

character asking a question followed by a
long declarative sentence, and then having
the other character respond to the question.
Thats not how people really talk so it seems
stilted and artificial.

Listen to the dialogue you write.

Avoid two-fers. These are lines of dialogue

that combine two dissimilar thoughts into
one speech. This manner of speaking should
be avoided unless you are using it

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deliberately to establish a characters
distracted or confused state of mind.

To avoid constructing two-fers, separate

them, if only with a quick one-word
response from the other character.


Try to avoid, or use sparingly and handle

with care; it is a literary device and too often
is used simply to advance plot. However,
voice-over narration can be used effectively
to set up the story and illuminate it:
If the narrator is a character in your
script (often the protagonist) it can
supply a personal touch or establish
the scripts POV
If the narrator is not a character in
the script it can supply a certain
Some stories need a narrator to
supply a unifying structure to the

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It can be used if you need to create
a pause moment or give a reflective
feel to your narrative

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