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Literature & Language Writing

Screenwriting 101
Mastering the Art of Story
Course Guidebook

Professor Angus Fletcher


The Ohio State University
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Angus Fletcher, Ph.D.
Professor of English and Film
The Ohio State University
Professor Biography
Angus Fletcher, Ph.D.
Professor of English and Film, The Ohio State University

A
ngus Fletcher is a Professor of English and Film at The
Ohio State University and a core faculty member at Project
Narrative. He has previously taught at Stanford University,
the University of Southern California, and Yale University. He holds
a Ph.D. in English from Yale.

Professor Fletcher is the author of more than a dozen feature


screenplays and television pilots, including a J. R. R. Tolkien biopic for
the producers of The Lord of the Rings series, an adaptation of The
Longest Journey for the estate of E. M. Forster, and an adaptation of
The Variable Man for the estate of Philip K. Dick.

Professor Fletcher’s academic research into story science has been


funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment
for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has received teaching
awards from Yale and the University of Southern California, and he was
listed as one of Hollywood’s top educators by Variety magazine.

Professor Fletcher’s most recent academic book is Comic Democracies:


From Ancient Athens to the American Republic. He has also authored
more than two dozen academic articles for Narrative, Critical Inquiry,
New Literary History, and other leading journals on literary and
narrative theory.■

Professor Biography ii
Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION

Professor Biography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . i
Course Scope . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

LECTURE GUIDES

Lecture 1 • Thinking like a Screenwriter . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3

Lecture 2 • Reverse Engineering Successful Scripts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10

Lecture 3 • Building Your Story World . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20

Lecture 4 • Developing Your Characters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30

Lecture 5 • Tone: The Screenwriter’s Lens . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40

Lecture 6 • Plotting Your Story Beats . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50

Lecture 7 • Sentimental Return: Casablanca . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58

Lecture 8 • The Tragic Sublime: The Godfather . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 70

Lecture 9 • Romantic Satisfaction: When Harry Met Sally… . . . . . . . . . . . 80

Lecture 10 • Suspense and Relief: Jaws . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 92

Lecture 11 • Romantic Longing: Annie Hall . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 104

Lecture 12 • Big Wonder: Star Wars . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 116

Table of Contents iii


Table of Contents

Lecture 13 • Charm: The Princess Bride . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 128

Lecture 14 • Alienation Effect: Do the Right Thing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 138

Lecture 15 • Redemption: Unforgiven . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 150

Lecture 16 • Surreal Connection: Pulp Fiction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 162

Lecture 17 • Big Sympathy: Toy Story . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 174

Lecture 18 • Existential Meaning: Fargo . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 184

Lecture 19 • Film versus Television: MASH and M*A*S*H . . . . . . . . . . . . 194

Lecture 20 • Writing a Television Pilot: Game of Thrones . . . . . . . . . . . . 206

Lecture 21 • The Sitcom: The Simpsons . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 218

Lecture 22 • The Procedural: CSI . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 228

Lecture 23 • The Prime-Time Soap: Grey’s Anatomy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 238

Lecture 24 •  Becoming a Screenwriter . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 248

SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIAL

Annotated Bibliography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 258


Other Media Referred To in This Course . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 259
Image Credits . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 264

Table of Contents iv
Screenwriting 101
Mastering the Art of Story

T
he goal of this course is to teach you how to write any kind of
feature film or TV pilot script by using a technique employed
by scriptwriters from Shakespeare to Pixar: reverse engineering.
Aristotle outlined this technique in the ancient world. It remains at the
center of the empirical method used by modern story scientists to
analyze narratives today.

The opening two lectures cover the basic two-step process for applying
reverse engineering to film and TV scripts:

First, identify as precisely as possible the unique emotion, mood,


or other psychological effect generated by the script. Does the
script generate wonder, suspense, romance, or something else?

Second, work back to isolate the unique blend of story


components that create this psychological effect, just like a chef
works back from a particular flavor to identify the unique mix of
ingredients that produced it.

The next four lectures organize the ingredients of scripts into four major
story components: story world, character, plot, and tone. You will learn
to create new story worlds by modifying the rules of comedy, tragedy,
horror, and any other kind of story genre. You will learn how to establish
main characters, minor characters, and antagonists, and how to create
their action and dialogue. You will see how to plot scenes and full-
length scripts by starting from the final scene and working back. And
you will learn how to wield a screenwriter’s most powerful tool, tone, by
creating a narrator who helps the reader see just how the script should
be filmed.

Course Scope 1
In the following 12 lectures on film, you will practice the course’s method
for analyzing and writing scripts by applying it to a  dozen film scripts
that have been selected by the Writers’ Guild of America as some of
the best of all time. In each case, the lecture will identify the special
psychological effect of each script and trace it back to its own special
blueprint of story world, character, plot, and tone. This provides you
with a blueprint to produce work like each script yourself. More broadly,
it gives you a general method for writing like any script you choose.

In the next five lectures on TV, you will learn about the major innovation
of TV writing: a story engine that allows TV writers to generate hour
after hour of consistent material without ever falling into formulaic plots.
You will see the general qualities of all TV engines and then learn the
specific features of the TV engines that drive cable dramas like Game
of Thrones, sitcoms like The Simpsons, procedurals like CSI, and prime-
time soap operas like Grey’s Anatomy.

The final lecture provides some practical tips for using this course to
increase your appreciation of films and TV, for honing your own personal
storytelling style, and for writing a film or TV script and getting it out
into the world.■

Course Scope 2
LECTURE 1

THINKING LIKE
A SCREENWRITER

T
here are three main benefits to studying scripts. The first is that
studying scripts can boost your storytelling powers. The second
is that it deepens your appreciation of films and TV. The third
benefit is that studying scripts can help you learn how to write them
yourself. This course is designed to help you gain all three of these
benefits. They all start from the same place: breaking down scripts to
see how they work.

3
EFFECTIVE STORIES

nn  To grasp the secret of an effective story, let go of the widely peddled
cliché that there’s a universal set of formulas for all great stories.
Story structure is not a preprogrammed, eternal piece of neural
hardware. It’s better understood as a flexible form of software that
your brain uses to map the world and imagine different pathways
through it.

nn  Since the world is tremendously big and forever changing, and


since the possibilities for human action are open-ended and always
increasing, your brain is capable of deploying an endless number
of story forms and structures.

nn  This diversity is exciting and liberating. But it also poses


a major practical challenge: If there isn’t one master narrative
for every good story, then how do you learn to become a more
effective storyteller?

nn  To discover your own most effective stories, use the technique
known as reverse engineering. It goes all the way back to the
ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. In his Poetics, Aristotle
gathered up the most popular scripts of his time and decided to
figure out the nuts and bolts of how they worked.

nn  To do that, he started by observing that tragedies had a pair of


cognitive effects on audiences. The two cognitive effects were pity
and fear. Aristotle then traced these two neural outcomes back
to a specific plot event called an anagnorisis, in which a character
has a tragic epiphany. An example is the moment when Oedipus
suddenly realizes that he has fulfilled the ancient prophecy that
he’s tried to escape all his life: that he’ll kill his father and sleep with
his mother.

Lecture 1   •   Thinking like a  Screenwriter 4


nn  Aristotle’s analysis of Oedipus is the most ancient example of the
simple two-step process of reverse engineering a script. First, you
identify the script’s cognitive effect. A cognitive effect is anything
that happens in the brain: emotions, feelings, moods, attitudes,
and perceptions.

nn  Second, once you’ve identified the script’s cognitive effect, you


trace it back to the particular story structure in the script that
causes that effect. Aristotle identified two cognitive effects, fear
and pity, and traced them back to specific features of the plot.

nn  Aristotle’s method of reverse engineering stories is still going


strong today. It’s used by theorists and by practitioners like the
screenwriters in the story labs of Pixar. Whether you want to analyze
stories or create them, Aristotle’s ancient method is still very much
on the cutting edge.

BENEFITS OF REVERSE ENGINEERING

nn  From a screenwriter’s perspective, the value of reverse engineering


is that it allows you to recreate the brilliant effects of your favorite
scripts without plagiarizing them. If you use reverse engineering
to go beneath the script’s surface, you can discover its deeper
creative logic, coming to understand why the author made the
choices that she did.

nn  Reverse engineering will also allow you to develop your own original
voice. It gives you the freedom to choose your own storytelling
models because the premise of reverse engineering is that there
are endless ways to write a good story.

nn  Lastly, reverse engineering helps you glimpse the deeper intentions


of the authors you emulate, allowing you to do what those authors
did while making your own unique story choices and innovations.

Lecture 1   •   Thinking like a  Screenwriter 5


FORMATTING

nn  Before this course moves on into the specifics


of screenwriting, it’s important to cover one
practical thing you’ll need to learn to start
writing screenplays yourself: formatting. The
format of scripts can seem like a daunting
technical exercise, but don’t let it intimidate you.

nn  Back in the days of the old studio system,


there were a lot of hard and fast rules about
formatting. The margins needed to be just so,
one page of screenplay needed to translate to
one minute of screen time, and so on. That’s
because everyone at the studio spoke the same
language; every film was made by the same
people, working on the same assembly line.

nn  But the 1970s, that assembly line was broken


apart. The talent agencies pulled the actors,
the directors, and the writers out of studio
contracts. Now, story development, financing,
and even production are increasingly done
outside the studios.

nn  Occasionally, studios still develop, finance,


produce, and distribute a movie from start
to finish. But most of the time, they partner
with outside producers and financiers. As
a result, the rules for formatting have
become looser. So don’t worry too much
about the byzantine intricacies of formatting.
Since your first script will almost certainly be
read more for the story than for anything else,
focus on communicating that story, not on
getting your margins exactly right.

7
nn  But even so, there are a few basic rules that almost every
script observes. The first rule of formatting is to get yourself
a screenwriting program. This will do most of the formatting
automatically, saving you endless wasted time and effort. Current
examples include programs from Google Docs, Amazon Storywriter,
and Final Draft (the industry standard); many more are out there.

nn  Now for writing a scene. Each scene begins with a slugline, and
each slugline has three main parts. The first part of the slugline
is EXT. for exterior if the scene is outside or INT. for interior if
it’s inside. Sometimes, EXT/INT is appropriate if the scene shifts
between the two.

nn  The second part of the slugline is the physical location, like Andy’s
Bedroom or Fargo, North Dakota. The final part of the slugline is
the time mark. This is often DAY or NIGHT, to let the crew know
whether they need to prep the set for noon or midnight.

nn  The time mark can also be CONT. for continuous if it follows


immediately after the scene before. And it can also be: MOMENTS
LATER or MINUTES LATER or NEXT DAY if that’s the best way to
communicate the time at which it happens.

nn  After the slugline, there are two big types of script content. The first
kind of content is scene descriptions or action beats. An example:
“A car bursts through the curtain of snow.”

nn  Action is always in the present tense, and you can use capital letters
to highlight important beats or objects in the action or descriptions:
“A car BURSTS through the curtain of snow.” Just don’t overdo it
with the capital letters.

nn  The second kind of script content is dialogue. The first dialogue


component you’ll enter is the character’s name in capital letters.
In many programs, to begin this step, just hit tab to enter the
character’s name. You’ll then hit return and enter their words. (Note:
These instructions may vary between programs.)

Lecture 1   •   Thinking like a  Screenwriter 8


nn  In general, don’t explain what the camera does; that’s the director’s
job. Your job is to describe the scene with enough visual flair that
the director can see what the camera should see.

nn  To begin your script, you can write instructions like FADE IN or
COLD OPEN. Alternately, you can just start without any of those
directions, allowing the director to make the call.

nn  If you have more technical formatting questions, study a few of your
favorite screenplays and crib from them. If you can’t find an answer
to your formatting question in these screenplays, the chances are
it’s not that big of a deal. In that case, do whatever makes most
sense to you.

 EXERCISE

1 Obtain a screenwriting program. Practice formatting


a scene, starting with a slugline and including several scene
descriptions or action beats and some dialogue.

2 Get a copy of one of your favorite scripts. Then, retype


its opening scene in Final Draft or your own screenwriting
program to get a feel for how the format works. Second,
rewatch part of the final film onscreen, and then type up
another scene. Next, compare it with the original script.

 FURTHER READING

Oedipus Rex, Sophocles


Poetics, Aristotle

Lecture 1   •   Thinking like a  Screenwriter 9


LECTURE 2

REVERSE
ENGINEERING
SUCCESSFUL SCRIPTS

I
f you want to become a more effective storyteller, the first step is
to learn to differentiate between all the different cognitive effects
that stories can create. The second step is to trace these differences
back to their own special forms of story structure, the unique recipes
that make them work. By repeating the two-step process of tracing
cognitive effects back to story structures, you can reverse engineer
a huge catalog of blueprints for moving people’s hearts and minds.
To get you started on this personal guide, this lecture goes back to
the dawn of scriptwriting to reverse engineer three major storytelling
innovations from Greek tragedy and comedy.
ANCIENT ATHENS nn  When the ancients wanted to write tragedies, they told stories
about the crushing power of the heavens. For example, sometimes
nn  Ancient Athens is as far back as the recorded history of scripts gods like Dionysus would literally impose themselves upon the
goes. Athenians can seem rather traditional today, but they were characters onstage.
incredible, dynamic innovators. The innovations of ancient Greek
playwrights continue to form the basis for a huge variety of scripts nn  Since comedies elicit the opposite cognitive effect from tragedies,
today. Therefore, the Greeks can teach some enduring recipes for one would expect them to flip the plot structure of tragedy. In fact,
story. They can also show how to innovate. that’s what the earliest comic scripts do. Instead of imposing the
heavens down on the earth, they imprint earth up on the heavens.
nn  There is one major difference between the cognitive effects that For example, the ancient comedy Frogs bestows a case of intestinal
these ancient plays cause. Some of the scripts make people smile. diarrhea upon immortal Dionysus. In other words, it inflicts a human
The others make people weep. The Greeks called the first kind condition up onto a god.
comedy and the second kind tragedy.
nn  These stories are inverted tragedies. Instead of crushing down
nn  Human brains are primordially wired to separate the world into human life, they let it burst heavenward, which is why these stories
sources of pleasure and pain, and so it’s revealing that the most bring pleasure, not pain.
ancient forms of scripts were developed to carry people toward
both of these destinations. nn  That, in its broadest form, is the method of reverse engineering:
taking a body of scripts, discriminating between their cognitive
nn  This is the earliest empirical evidence that there isn’t one best kind effects, and tracing those effects back to differences in their
of script, because scripts have worked from the very beginning to story structure.
touch the full capacity of human experience. They don’t privilege
good experiences over bad. They engage with all that human
minds can do.
INNOVATION IN OEDIPUS

nn  This lecture now turns to the first of three Greek innovations by


reverse engineering perhaps the most iconic of all Greek tragedies:
Oedipus. The end of Oedipus has an instructional final cognitive
effect. The chorus at the end of Oedipus reveals that the story has
been a reminder that people should temper their joy because at
any moment, life can deliver unhappy shocks.

nn  The next step in reverse engineering it to ask: How does Oedipus’s


script carry people into a more restrained emotional state? One
way the script creates this effect is with its plot twist.

Lecture 2  •  Reverse Engineering Successful Scripts 14


nn  The original prophecy is that Oedipus will kill his father and sleep
with his mother. But nothing in the prophecy prepares people for
when Oedipus realizes that he’s done these things: He grabs his
mother’s broaches and plunges them, per the script, “straight into
his eyeballs.”

nn  This grisly detail doesn’t exist in the ancient prophecy, and it


also doesn’t exist in the earlier Homeric story about Oedipus.
The writer, Sophocles, specifically decided to include it in his script.
This choice is a powerful way to generate the final cognitive effect
that his script was aiming for.

INNOVATION IN THE BACCHAE

nn  The second of this lecture’s innovations comes from Euripides’s


script, The Bacchae. Unlike the other scripts of its time, which either
stimulated pleasure or pain, The Bacchae did both. It was half
tragedy but also half comedy—a tragicomedy.

nn  What story innovation allowed Euripides to create this new


cognitive effect? The answer lies in the ending. The Bacchae tells
the story of how the divinely intoxicated worshippers of the god
Dionysus tear a skeptical king into pieces with their bare hands.

nn  One of the intoxicated worshippers who rips apart the king’s body
is his own mother. In the final moments of the play, she appears
on stage, triumphantly holding his head. On the other side of the
stage, her father enters, holding the king’s arms and legs and
weeping for the death of his grandson.

nn  The same situation gives one character joy and another character
misery. There’s pain on one side of the stage and pleasure on
the other. Because the audience sees both sides of the stage
simultaneously, they experience pleasure and pain coming from
a single story event: the death of the king.

Lecture 2  •  Reverse Engineering Successful Scripts 15


nn  The innovation: Euripides built a plot that split the audience’s
perspective between two main characters. On one side was
a traditional male of Thebes, who saw the world as he always
had. On the other was a female worshipper of Dionysus, who saw
everything the opposite. To her, violence was love, femininity was
power, and human loss was divine redemption.

nn  This split paved the way for an ending where one character saw
tragedy as tragedy and the other character saw tragedy as
comedy. A new scriptwriting technique was born. If you want to
create a tragicomic effect in your own scripts, imitate the structure
of The Bacchae and create two main characters who experience
the same thing oppositely, giving the audience two ways to see it
too. An example of a modern work that does this is the film Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Lecture 2  •  Reverse Engineering Successful Scripts 16


INNOVATION IN COMEDY

nn  At around the time that Alexander the Great pacified Athens in
335 BCE, scriptwriters started penning comic plays whose happy
endings had a very different cognitive effect from the original
comedies crafted in the days of Athenian democracy. The happy
endings of the older comedies had triggered an almost manic
sense of euphoria. The happy endings of the newer comedies were
more sedate, generating a feeling of satisfied contentment.

nn  What was the big innovation in story structure that caused this?
Speaking broadly, the big difference between the two kinds of
comedy is the problem or crisis that initiates the plot. In older
comedies, of which the surviving examples are all written by
Aristophanes, the plot begins with an apparently intractable real-
world problem like war or famine or civic corruption.

nn  These problems are so daunting that most sensible members of


the audience have already despaired of solving them. Therefore,
the comedies involve a slightly lunatic main character: Only
such a character would tackle a problem that everyone else has
abandoned as unsolvable. The manic character then sets off
to solve this problem in a highly eccentric way, for example by
building a city in the clouds or by journeying into the underworld.

nn  And as the absurd solution grows more detailed and intricate, it


gradually pushes aside the real world with its own zany laws of
physics, until anything seems possible and the original problem is
solved not literally but imaginatively. For example, at the end of the
script for Frogs, the hero rescues a dead playwright from hell. At
the end of Lysistrata, the inveterate foes of Athens and Sparta join
in a dance. At the end of Birds, a man sprouts wings and becomes
king of the gods.

nn  Step by step by step, the plots of these scripts shatter normal


sense of logic, catapulting the audience into a place of fantasy
where anything seems possible. This is why these older comedies
generate a cognitive effect of manic euphoria.

Lecture 2  •  Reverse Engineering Successful Scripts 17


nn  In contrast, the structure of the newer comedies—the most popular
of which were written by the playwright Menander—have plots
aren’t initiated by an impossible problem. They’re set in motion
by a problem that the audience knows can be easily solved. For
example, these scripts begin with a misunderstanding, a rash
promise, or some other instance of personal cluelessness where
an otherwise normal individual drags himself or herself into an
unnecessary mistake.

nn  Normally, in the case of a small error, people should just admit


the mistake and move one. But sometimes they’re too proud or
embarrassed to do that, so they keep going, compounding the
error. Finally, the whole unnecessary problem becomes such a big
headache that people throw up our hands, admit they messed up,
and ask for forgiveness from everyone they inconvenienced.

nn  That is the plot of the newer Greek comedies: A minor mistake


gets compounded out of vanity or shame, until at last, the
person admits their error, everybody forgives them, and there’s
a closing celebration.

nn  This newer plot isn’t about motivating audiences to believe that


the impossible is possible. It’s about encouraging people to stop
mucking up their lives unnecessarily. The psychological experience
of the newer comedy is a feeling of things getting back to way they
should be. Instead of being a delirious triumph, it’s a humbling
sense of relief.

nn  This new kind of comedy proved so popular that it has become the
basis of most modern sitcoms and romantic comedies. For example,
there’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Here, the unnecessary problem
is that the main character is too embarrassed to confess his total
lack of sexual experience. The more he won’t admit it, the more
ridiculous his difficulties become. Finally, at the end, he confesses,
and the problem of his virginity dissolves.

Lecture 2  •  Reverse Engineering Successful Scripts 18


 EXERCISE

1 Rewatch one of your favorite movie endings. How does it


make you feel? What’s unusual or special about its cognitive
effect that makes it different from other films that are
similar, but not quite the same? Can you create your own
original story ending that gives you that same distinct
cognitive effect?

2 Make a list of two or three of your favorite endings. What


do they not have in common? What’s special or unique
about the way they make you feel? Can you connect those
differences to a difference in their plot or story structure?

 FURTHER VIEWING

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)


The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
Ordinary People (1980)

 FURTHER READING

The Bacchae, Euripides

Lecture 2  •  Reverse Engineering Successful Scripts 19


LECTURE 3

BUILDING YOUR
STORY WORLD

T
his lecture covers where most scripts start: the story world, or
world for short. In a superficial sense, the story world is the
physical space where the story occurs. That’s why many movies
begin with an establishing shot of a city or a wild outback or some
other geographical place. But the real world of a story is much deeper
than just this physical space. The real world of a story is the rules of
this space, which govern what kinds of action happen here. There are
endless story worlds that scripts can create. But the one thing they all
have in common is that their rules are established crisply and clearly
at the beginning of the story. These rules provide the context for the
audience to appreciate what follows.
THE RULES

nn  To figure out how to help your audience orient, think of the rules of
a story world as the rules of a game. You’ll want to keep the rules
simple. This allows audiences to jump right in. Think, for example,
of tic-tac-toe. The rules are so simple they take only a few moments
to learn.

nn  Writers need to balance the simplicity of their rules with some


open-endedness. The action has to be able to surprise. But
crucially, this does not mean that writers can create the rules as
they go along. The goal is to lay out a few simple rules that allow
for complex, unpredictable outcomes so that your audience never
feels trapped or bored.

nn  If you introduce the rules of your world in the opening few pages of
your script, audiences will always accept them. They’ll accept that
superheroes can die or that cartoons can come alive.

nn  Think about the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones
rides on a submarine toward a secret island where the Nazis have the
Biblical chest containing the remnants of the Ten Commandments.
This is not a very plausible scene, yet the audience’s hearts race
in genuine suspense for Indiana’s situation. That’s because in the
opening moments of the script, we’ve seen that he inhabits a world
where brilliant supervillians meddle with archaeological treasures in
exotic locales.

nn  Keep in mind that you don’t have to create your story worlds from
scratch. You can borrow the rules of an existing story genre that
lays down the basic rules for superheroes, secret agents, fairytale
princesses, and all sorts of other exotic characters.

nn  You simply have to begin your script by signaling that it’s part of
a preexisting story genre, allowing you to import the big rules of
that story world into your own. Then, illustrate the one way in which
your story world is different.

Lecture 3  •  Building Your Story World 22


nn  Three huge archetypes—the tragic, comic, and heroic—provide
the deep foundation for the story worlds of most film scripts today.
The remainder of this lecture will focus on those.

TRAGEDY

nn  The most ancient complete tragedy available is Aeschylus’s


Oresteia. Although readers can’t say exactly what the story world
of tragedy looked like before the Oresteia, it certainly emphasized
the power of the gods over the mortals beneath. The script for the
Oresteia adopts this basic genre rule by beginning with a night
watchman who looks up at the almighty heavens and bemoans his
helpless lot below.

nn  The script adds its own special twist to the existing rules of
tragedy by revealing the particular form of the watchman’s earthly
helplessness: He’s stuck on a castle roof, waiting for a signal. That
signal will be conveyed by a row of signal stations that stretch from
Troy to Greece, so that a chain of signal lights will reach across the
known world, telling the watchman what to do.

nn  The simple dramatic action of the signal lights immediately


suggests that the new rule of this story world is that no action is
arbitrary. It’s part of a chain reaction where the actions of the past
return in the present and echo into the future, just like those signal
lights repeat.

nn  And this chain reaction is in fact exactly what happens in the script.
First, a king murders his daughter to get good sailing winds for
Troy. Then, the king returns from Troy and is murdered by his wife,
who is then in turn killed by her avenging son. One family killing
begets another.

nn  Therein lies the two-step method for establishing a story world. First,
the Oresteia aligns itself with an established genre or subgenre:
tragedy. Second, it creates its own new rule: the cascading actions.

Lecture 3  •  Building Your Story World 23


nn  After Aeschylus innovated tragedy with his
leaping signal lights, subsequent Greek
scriptwriters used the same two-step method
to create their own new directions for tragedy.

nn  The enormous effectiveness of this two-step


method has led to its use by every single Oscar-
winning tragic script that Hollywood has ever
produced. Take perhaps the most legendary
tragedy in Hollywood history: the script for
Citizen Kane.

nn  The opening scene of Kane introduces a “great


castle,” just like the great castles walked by
the opening watchmen of the Oresteia. And
just like the Oresteia, the story world of Kane
reechoes the crimes of the past in the present,
as the willingness of Kane senior to trade family
for money repeats itself in his son’s destruction
of his own relationships.

nn  But then the opening of Kane adds its own twist


to this preexisting story world by revealing that
Kane’s castle differs in one crucial way from the
castles of previous tragic scripts. Kane’s castle
has not been handed down from generation to
generation. Instead, one man has built Kane’s
castle from scratch in a single generation.

nn  The script for Kane reveals that the new rule


of its story world will be that individuals can
achieve an enormous power that carries them
beyond being kings into becoming gods,
achieving spectacular, self-wrought forms of
destruction. Their wealth unlocks their most
personal desires, which return ironically to
demolish them.

Lecture 3  •  Building Your Story World 25


COMEDY

nn  Comedy, like tragedy, comes in endless flavors and subgenres,


the most popular of which has proven to be romantic comedy.
Romantic comedy has existed since the 4th century BCE, and since
its inception, its usual ending has been a wedding. To make that
wedding seem a plausible and a happy ending, romantic comedies
almost always begin by introducing the lovers as adult children,
that is, as the explicit offspring of a previous marriage.

nn  This opening establishes marriage as the deep rule that brought


the lovers into being and that will allow them to bring forth children
of their own, creating a story world where love triumphs generation
after generation after generation.

nn  This rule of romantic comedy has been successfully repeated


for thousands of years, inspiring writers from the ancient Greeks
to Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde to begin their scripts with adult
children. But here and there, scriptwriters have found clever ways
to tweak that opening rule. This opens new story worlds that allow
for happy endings that depart from the old traditional wedding.

nn  For example, the script for Shakespeare in Love starts with a clever
scene where a gang of men torture a theater owner with hot coals,
until the theater owner saves his skin by claiming to have a new
comedy by William Shakespeare that promises: “Mistaken identities,
a shipwreck, a pirate king, a bit with a dog, and love triumphant!”

nn  This opening beat establishes that the old comic rule of triumphant
love still exists in the script’s cynical story world of greed and
violence. But it also establishes that the rule exists in a new form:
Triumphant love isn’t to be found in marriage. It’s to be found in the
words and performances of the stage.

Lecture 3  •  Building Your Story World 26


nn  With this new rule, the script for Shakespeare in Love opens up
a new story world where lovers can experience a consummation
in art that can’t exist in marriage. This allows for an ending where
two characters who are married to other people nevertheless join
hearts onstage. By making one opening tweak to the rules, the
script finds an original way for love to reign triumphant.

HEROIC

nn  The two-step method allows you to innovate any genre you want.
But you also use this method to bring whole new genres into being.
The most spectacular historical example of this creative possibility
is the heroic genre. The heroic genre emerged after comedy and
tragedy in opposition to them.

nn  In comedy and tragedy, the main


characters are eventually forced by the
action of the plot to conform to the big
rules of their story world. But in heroic
scripts, the opposite happens: The
main characters change the world.

nn  At the end of the 16th century, the


English writer Christopher Marlowe
wrote several tragic scripts about
rebels with seductively forward-
looking beliefs. Marlowe’s tragic
hero Tamburlaine challenges the
feudal belief that a peasant must
always remain a peasant. And
Marlowe’s anti-hero Doctor Faustus
makes a demonic pact out of disgust
with the outdated dogma of medieval
schools. But Marlowe’s rebel characters
were still doomed to destruction because
they inhabited tragic story worlds that treated
innovation as impossible.

Lecture 3  •  Building Your Story World 27


nn  A few years after Marlowe, Shakespeare changed the rules. In
Henry IV, he introduced a man who made himself king and then
passed his crown onto his son, altering the old tragic rule that the
present must echo the past. In the old story world, individuals
were a product of their environment. In the new story world, their
environment would be a product of them.

nn  With this one simple change to the previous rules of tragedy,


Shakespeare ushered in a whole new genre, the heroic. It inspired
modern Hollywood scripts as varied as Casablanca, Die Hard, and
Pulp Fiction.

nn  Heroic story worlds can be established and innovated through the


two-part method of importing preexisting genre rules and then
establishing a new rule. The one difference is that the new heroic
rule isn’t there from the get-go of the story world. Instead, it’s
added to the story world over the course of the plot by the actions
of a hero or heroes.

nn  Here’s how it works in Lawrence of Arabia. The script opens


on Lawrence’s death and subsequent funeral, where men who
never knew him dismiss his achievements. This script begins
by summoning up Hamlet’s old tragic rule that men die and are
forgotten.

nn  But after the funeral, Lawrence challenges this tragic rule by


returning from the dead in an extended flashback that becomes
the rest of the movie. As Lawrence acts in more and more
unforgettable ways in the flashback, he transforms himself into an
enduring legend, until finally, at the end of the script, he meets the
one man who spoke well of him in the opening scene of Lawrence’s
future funeral.

nn  This is the first occasion in their lives that the two men have ever
met—but somehow Lawrence remembers the other man. How
could this possibly be? Lawrence’s chronology-busting memory is
the script’s way of telling us that Lawrence has seen the opening
scene of the script. He was there at his own funeral, and so really,
this has not been a flashback.

Lecture 3  •  Building Your Story World 28


nn  This has been a resurrection, because Lawrence has lived beyond
death, changing the tragic rule of individual destruction into
a heroic rule of time-defying immortality, as if Hamlet had risen to
life to recount his own story at the end of Shakespeare’s script.

 EXERCISE

Analyze the opening scenes of your favorite film. How does


it establish the story world? What rules does it borrow from
other films? What new rule or rules does it establish?

 FURTHER VIEWING

All About Eve (1950)


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Citizen Kane (1941)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)

 FURTHER READING

Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe


Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Henry IV, Part 1, William Shakespeare
Oresteia, Aeschylus
Tamburlaine the Great, Christopher Marlowe

Lecture 3  •  Building Your Story World 29


LECTURE 4

DEVELOPING YOUR
CHARACTERS

C
haracters are the key ingredients to most successful stories. If
you create an engaging character, audiences will follow them
anywhere. Characters set something apart, and scripts typically
introduce world before they introduce character. The world is the
standard state of affairs and the way things usually work. By laying out
the story world first, a script provides the norm against which characters
can establish their own uniqueness. In this lecture, you’ll discover the
recipe for creating compelling characters and putting them in your
scripts. The recipe has three ingredient techniques. Two are essential
for every character, and the third is an optional but powerful technique.
CONFLICT

nn  The first technique for creating a character is to establish the


character through conflict with something else. Since you want your
main characters to stick out most of all, their conflict should be with
the entire story world.

nn  The bigness of this conflict signals the character’s own importance,


which is why the traditional two-step beginning for a script is an
opening scene where minor characters introduce the rules of a story
world and a second scene that introduces the main character in
conflict with one of those rules.

nn  An example: The first scene of Hamlet introduces the tragic rule
of its story world through Horatio and the watchmen. The second
scene introduces the title character as he challenges the story
world’s rote action with his own independent thought.

nn  This means that to locate your main character’s conflict, you


can reverse engineer back from the rules of your story world to
create a character who opposes one or more of these rules. For
example, if you have a story world of conquering male knights,
the reverse-engineered main character could be a female who
dismisses chivalry as a load of empty posturing. That’s Beatrice in
Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing.

nn  Alternately, if you’d prefer to come up with your main character


before you design your story world, flip the process and reverse
engineer the rules of your story world to oppose your main
character. However you get there, the important thing is the conflict.

nn  This conflict causes characters to resist their world, consciously


or unconsciously, and then either to change it or be changed by
it. The conflict between the main characters and the story world
generates the plot.

Lecture 4  •  Developing Your Characters 32


nn  To establish smaller characters, you reverse engineer their conflicts
as well. Antagonists are reverse engineered to be in conflict with
the main character, which is to say that antagonists embody the
rule of the story world that the main character opposes. Meanwhile,
minor characters typically share the main character’s conflict with
the story world, only to a lesser degree.

Lecture 4  •  Developing Your Characters 33


FEAR

nn  The second big technique is to reverse engineer the deep fear that
drives the character into conflict. Fear is the deepest psychological
level of every character; it’s the force that propels them to act as
they do.

nn  This might seem a rather dark view of characters. But when you’re
building your characters, you want to think of them primarily as
creatures of fear for two biological reasons.

First,
  fears are the most powerful drivers of human behavior.
Our hopes and desires are essential for us to thrive, but before
we can thrive, we first need to stay alive. And because our fears
are our guardians against death and destruction, they motivate
our most revealing, urgent, and extraordinary acts.

The
  second reason to build your characters out of their fears is
because these fears are what cognitively bonds audiences to
characters, making them care.

nn  After you reverse-engineer your character’s conflict, the next step is


to reverse-engineer their deep fear. For example, what kind of fear
could drive a man to hate a time of love? He would be afraid that
his physical appearance makes him unlovable. That’s Shakespeare’s
Richard III.

What
  kind of fear could drive a slave to disobey his master?
A fear of losing his own self-respect. That’s the comic character
Pseudolus.

What
  kind of fear could drive a woman to mock male courtesy?
A fear of having her heart broken again by empty promises.
That’s Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.

Lecture 4  •  Developing Your Characters 34


nn  Then after you reverse engineer this deep fear, lay a quick beat
into your script to reveal it right after you introduce your character.
A simple gesture or moment of dialogue is enough to establish
the fear.

SOLILOQUIES

nn  The first two techniques encourage audiences to feel for a character.


That is, they encourage what story scientists call empathy. The
optional third technique encourages audiences to identify with
a character. It goes beyond empathy and into what story scientists
call sympathy.

nn  Empathy and sympathy have colloquial meanings, but these


lectures use the two terms in a rigorous, technical sense. Empathy
is when you feel for a character. Sympathy is when you feel with
a character. For example, imagine that a character feels fear. If
you have empathy for the character, then you feel sorrow or pity
or outrage for her fear. But if you have sympathy for the character,
then you literally feel her fear.

nn  Sympathy is the most powerful kind of psychological connection


a script can engineer. The secret blueprint to doing it is to write
a soliloquy. In these lectures, a soliloquy is when a character
expresses a conflict between two deep fears.

nn  A soliloquy is both a dialogue and a monologue; it’s a back-and-


forth that one character has as their two deepest fears vie against
each other. So a soliloquy shows that a character isn’t just afraid of
one thing—the character is caught between two things he fears.

nn  To create these moments of sympathy, modern scripts occasionally


include full-blown, traditional soliloquies, like in the Oscar-winning
script for Birdman. The character Riggan argues with his superhero
alter ego, torn between his fear that he won’t be respected as an
artist and his fear of being a nobody.

Lecture 4  •  Developing Your Characters 35


nn  But modern scripts are also filled with clever ways to mimic
soliloquies, like The Sopranos does with Tony’s therapy sessions,
or like Sex and the City does with voiceovers. Voiceovers are often
mistakenly accused of being a writer’s crutch, but they are an
incredibly useful tool for generating sympathy. Watch an episode
of The Wonder Years or Scrubs or My So-Called Life for examples.

nn  Scripts can also simulate soliloquies simply by showing a character


acting in a conflicted way. If a character hesitates outside a door,
or buys a gift and then throws it out, or goes on dates with two
very different people, that can prompt the viewer to imagine
the unspoken conflict of fears in the character’s mind, triggering
a moment of identification.

Lecture 4  •  Developing Your Characters 36


nn  Since soliloquies are so powerful, you might be tempted to use
them all the time. But more sympathy isn’t always better, and
many powerful scripts don’t use sympathy at all. The reason:
Sympathy is less effective than simple empathy at generating
certain other cognitive effects. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking
that sympathy is always better than empathy. From a storytelling
perspective, they’re just different tools with different uses.

DIALOGUE

nn  Creating and introducing a character is only the beginning. After


that comes every action they have to perform and every word they
have to say. So how do you write all those story beats and their
accompanying dialogue?

nn  To write these beats and dialogue, return to the three big
techniques. To know what your characters will do or say in any
given moment, you have to enter their minds. And the way to enter
a character’s mind is to experience their deep conflicts by tapping
into the fears that drive them.

nn  By tapping into a character’s fears, you can also imagine all of
their dialogue. That dialogue contains two broad elements. The
first is the underlying intention of the dialogue. The second is the
particular nouns and verbs and other words that the character uses
to put that intention into effect.

nn  You can find both of these dialogue elements by tapping into your
character’s fears. The first element of dialogue, the character’s
intention, is an action like any other action. It’s an attempt to push
away some bad outcome with another better one.

Lecture 4  •  Developing Your Characters 37


nn  Regarding your character’s particular word choices: Some of
these words are carefully selected by characters to achieve their
immediate objectives. By tapping into your characters’ fears,
you can discover what words they’ll use or avoid when they’re
concerned about incriminating themselves, or antagonizing
someone, or revealing how they secretly feel.

nn  Then there are the less conscious parts of your character’s speech,
like vocabulary and diction. For example, a character’s vocabulary
and diction and patterns of speech may reflect a kind of anxious
overcompensation. A character who’s afraid of being an academic
failure will talk with an eccentrically outsized vocabulary learned
through secret hours of study. A character who’s afraid of being
inauthentic will talk with a more of a local dialect. A character who’s
afraid of being uncool will have a mind filled with archaeological
layers of slang.

nn  As an example of how this works, take the cop Edmund Exley in
the script for L.A. Confidential. His conscious fear is not measuring
up to his dad, who was a legend on the force, so he goes out of his
way to do everything by the book.

nn  Long before the story began, Exley trained himself to talk in


bloodless language, like a typed report. Other characters around
him use colorful expressions like: “Guy’s got a pole so far up his
ass, every time he farts the flag waves.” But Exley uses dull and
colorless vocabulary and syntax.

nn  But then later in the script, as he becomes more and more afraid
that his by-the-book approach is hurting his ability to be a good
cop, he puts on a tough-guy act in an interrogation and begins
cursing. And at the end of the script, when he thinks he’s about
to get killed, he quietly curses. In that moment, his primal fear of
death overwhelms the professional anxieties that led him to talk so
religiously by the book.

Lecture 4  •  Developing Your Characters 38


nn  In that microexample, you can see how a character’s deep fears
shape every element of their speech, from their usual vocabulary,
to their conscious performances, and finally to their unguarded
emotional utterances.

 EXERCISE
1 Imagine a conflict between a person and their story world.
Maybe the person is a questioner in a totalitarian society,
or a liar in the halls of truth, or a rationalist in a culture of
feeling. Now, outline a scene where you draw attention to
this character by dramatizing the conflict.

2 Write a short scene that reveals the fear that drives your
character’s conflict, or if you want to be more ambitious,
the two fears that the character is pulled between. Tap into
the fear or fears to help you craft the character’s conscious
verbal intentions, their unconscious dialect, and every other
aspect of their dialogue. Once you’ve made one character,
make more. Of all the things you can create, nothing will
give your audience more meaning or delight.

 FURTHER VIEWING

L.A. Confidential (1997)


Moonlight (2016)
The Social Network (2010)

Lecture 4  •  Developing Your Characters 39


LECTURE 5

TONE: THE
SCREENWRITER’S
LENS

T
one is the way a story is told. It’s the voice of the storyteller,
real or implied. And it’s so powerful that you can flip an entire
story simply by changing the tone. There are endless ways to
modulate a story’s tone. You can communicate any perspective, no
matter how subtle or strange, if you strike the right tone.

This lecture explores how to use tone to put your script in the best
position to get its unique voice across. First, you’ll learn the main tool
that screenwriters use to establish tone. And second, you’ll learn the
fundamentals of four popular screenwriting tones: the god’s eye, the
ironic, the comic, and the sentimental.
THE NARRATOR

nn  Tone is a cognitive effect that exists in the minds of audiences. Like


every effect, it has a cause: a literary device known as the narrator.
The narrator is the person who tells you the story. Sometimes
that storyteller is explicit, like when Moby Dick begins: “Call me
Ishmael.” Sometimes that storyteller is implied, like when A Tale of
Two Cities announces out of nowhere: “It was the best of times, it
was the worst of times.”

nn  In scripts, narrators are usually hidden out of sight, glimpsed


indirectly through ripples in the text. But even in scripts, the
narrator is everywhere. Every story beat, scene, character
description, action, and transition has to be voiced by someone.
And that someone is the narrator you create.

nn  There are many ways that your narrator can shape the tone, but
from a screenwriting perspective, the two most important ways are
what your narrator focuses on and how they focus on it.

nn  Beginning with the what: When a narrator describes a physical


space, he or she chooses what to focus on by emphasizing certain
objects and deemphasizing or ignoring others. For example,
if a narrator describes a home, they won’t give equal time to all
the rooms in that home. They might emphasize the living room or
the kitchen, styling the house as a space of family togetherness.
Or they might emphasize the spare bedroom or a study in the
attic, instead subtly portraying the home as a place of solitude or
even apartness.

nn  The same goes for the people in the rooms. If a narrator focuses
on a person’s clothes, it creates a public sense of social place. If
a narrator focuses on a person’s eyes, it creates a more private
sense of intimacy.

Lecture 5  •  Tone: The Screenwriter’s Lens 42


nn  When you’re writing a screenplay, don’t describe everything in
every room and on every character. Carefully choose what you
include. When you’re analyzing a piece of writing to borrow its
tone, take notice of what places and objects the narrative records
and what it ignores. If you make similar choices in your own writing,
you’ll generate the same tone.

nn  Now for the other part: the how. This is the way you describe the
objects you focus on. Do you use technical terms or slang? Do
you use warmer adjectives or cooler ones? Do you avoid adverbs
entirely and opt for a more laconic style? Do you make your verbs
more active or passive? Do you describe objects as they are or as
your characters see them? All of these factors affect the tone.

THE GOD’S-EYE TONE

nn  The first major tone this lecture will focus on is known as the god’s-
eye. A god’s-eye narrator has the properties of a divine eye, all
seeing and all knowing. It’s above the things it describes. It sees
into their essence and has dominion over them.

nn  In the Old Testament, examples abound of a detached, all-powerful


narrator who focuses on only the largest objects (like heaven and
earth). But here’s how a slightly different narrator works in the
opening lines of Homer’s Iliad:

Sing goddess, of the all-a-damaging anger of Achilles born of


Peleus, that brought countless pains to men, sending many stout
souls to Hades before their time, making heroes into food for
dogs and vultures.

nn  Some of what the narrator focuses on is still very big objects: Hades
and a goddess. But there are also smaller objects like food and
dogs and vultures. And many of these objects are plural: pains and
men and souls and heroes. Moreover, in keeping with the Greeks’
polytheism, this god’s eye is one among many. It communicates
a sense of strength without insisting upon its own totality.

Lecture 5  •  Tone: The Screenwriter’s Lens 43


THE IRONIC NARRATOR

nn  The ironic narrator goes back thousands of


years to ancient Greek and Roman satire. The
ironic narrator gently deflates and undercuts
the things he or she describes. The ironic
narrator wryly suggests that things are less
important than we tend to think.

nn  There’s no better example of this kind of


narrator than the novels of Jane Austen. Take
the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that


a single man in possession of a good fortune,
must be in want of a wife. However little
known the feelings or views of such a man
may be on his first entering a neighbourhood,
this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the
surrounding families, that he is considered
the rightful property of some one or other of
their daughters.

nn  Like the god’s-eye narrator, Austen’s ironic


narrator gives us the big things of the cosmos,
like “truth” and “man.” But the narrator also
focuses on the low drama of furniture and
country marriages and all the other trivial
things of human life.

nn  If you want to recreate Austen’s tone of light


irony, follow her narrator’s method of dry
understatement. Here’s how the script for The
Big Short does it in its opening lines: “A bunch
of FAT BOND TRADERS eat deli sandwiches
and smoke cigarettes on the Solomon Brothers
Bond Trading floor. It’s not exactly Michael
Douglas in Wall Street.”

45
THE COMIC NARRATOR

nn  The comic narrator is sometimes confused with the ironic because


it can contain lightly satiric elements. But unlike the ironic, the
primary purpose of the comic is not to tear down. Instead, it’s to lift
up and celebrate the little curiosities of life.

nn  One classic comic narrator who’s had a huge influence on film and
TV is Huck Finn from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn. Here’s how Huck tells a story:

All the streets and lanes was just mud; they warn’t nothing
else but mud—mud as black as tar and nigh about a foot deep in
some places, and two or three inches deep in all the places.  The
hogs loafed and grunted around everywheres.  You’d see
a muddy sow and a litter of pigs come lazying along the street
and whollop herself right down in the way, as happy as if she was
on salary.

nn  The what of this narrator


is an intimate focus on
the humblest of things.
The narrator doesn’t just
mention the mud. He
gets down low enough to
describe its exact color
and inches.

Lecture 5  •  Tone: The Screenwriter’s Lens 46


nn  Almost every sitcom or romantic comedy uses a comic narrator. You
can find one fantastic model in the script for Little Miss Sunshine,
which begins with a happy catalogue of grungy characters.

The script opens by introducing six-year-old Olive, with her



“frizzy hair” and “black-rimmed glasses,” as she “earnestly”
imitates Miss America’s wave.

Then
  the script hops to 40-something Sheryl as she inhales
nicotine and promises to pick up a bucket of chicken. Then, it
hops to 80-year-old Grandpa as he snorts heroin and relaxes
on the toilet, and then it hops to 15-year-old Dwayne as he
pumps iron and reads Nietzsche. Just like Huck Finn, the
narrator of Little Miss Sunshine gets up close and personal with
a rich cast of lowly folk.

THE SENTIMENTAL NARRATOR

nn  Historically, the sentimental narrator is the most common kind of


narrator in screenwriting. The aim of the sentimental narrator is to
speak the language of the heart, and since different hearts feel
different things in different intensities and degrees, there’s a huge
variety in sentimental narrators.

nn  To give you a taste of the possibilities available, here’s the narrator
from Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning Beloved:

First he stands in the back, near the cold house, amazed by


the riot of late-summer flowers where vegetables should be
growing. Sweet william, morning glory, chrysanthemums. The
odd placement of cans jammed with the rotting stems of things,
the blossoms shriveled like sores. Dead ivy twines around bean
poles and door handles. Faded newspaper pictures are nailed
to the outhouse and on trees. A rope too short for anything but
skip-jumping lies discarded near the washtub; and jars and jars
of dead lightning bugs. Like a child’s house; the house of a very
tall child.

Lecture 5  •  Tone: The Screenwriter’s Lens 47


nn  The what of this narrator is the ordinary material things of life:
the planted flowers, the newspapers, and the outhouse. To
communicate a sense of intimacy—the how—the sentimental
narrator uses richly specific adjectives like “odd” and “rotting” and
“faded,” and the narrator also uses personifications to imply that
inanimate objects have animate minds.

nn  Like the comic narrator, the sentimental narrator emphasizes


the importance of human life. But unlike the comic narrator, the
sentimental narrator focuses on more serious emotions: sadness,
love, nostalgia, hope, etc. Where the comic narrator wants us to
delight in our wild variety, the sentimental narrator wants us to feel
a deeper empathy for one special beating heart.

nn  You can find an example of a sentimental narrator in the script for


Precious, which paints the title character’s feelings onto the world
with lines like: “The door closing behind Precious might as well be
to a prison cell block.”

CONCLUSION

nn  This list of narrators isn’t meant as an exhaustive catalog. There are


many sub-varieties within each broad type of narrator, and there
are many other types out there for you to discover.

nn  To expand your library of possibilities, you can also splice together
different narrators. Romantic comedies, for example, often use
a more comic tone in the beginning and a more sentimental tone
at the end.

nn  But these four big blueprints can get you started on developing
your own screenwriting voice, enabling you to take control of the
What and the How of storytelling, injecting subtle forms of mood
and atmosphere into scene descriptions, actions, and even plot
and dialogue.

Lecture 5  •  Tone: The Screenwriter’s Lens 48


 EXERCISE

1 Read a few sentences from your favorite novelist or essayist,


identifying the what and the how of their narrator. Then,
copy that narrator’s tone by writing in his or her voice about
things in your own life.

2 Watch a few minutes of your favorite film. Note what


the camera focuses on and how it focuses on it, and
then translate that visual tone into a written narrator by
penning a description of the film’s opening shots and main
characters, the way the camera sees them.

 FURTHER VIEWING

A Room with a View (1985)


Juno (2007)
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

 FURTHER READING

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain


Beloved, Toni Morrison
The Bible, Genesis, King James Version
Iliad, Homer
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Lecture 5  •  Tone: The Screenwriter’s Lens 49


LECTURE 6

PLOTTING YOUR
STORY BEATS

H
umans brains are naturally good at plotting; that’s why humans
are the planet’s dominant species. But if that’s the case, then
why do so many first-time screenwriters get lost or stranded or
swamped with subplots that just won’t converge? And why do so many
professionals struggle too? The answer is that writers make the mistake
of plowing forward from the start. As this lecture shows, when you plot,
it’s much easier to do it backward. Reverse engineering is all you need
to plot your next film script.
A SHAKESPEAREAN EXAMPLE

nn  Although Shakespeare never uses the term reverse engineering, he


was trained in this method from childhood because it was a staple
of Renaissance and classical manuals on rhetoric. Shakespeare
reveals how nuanced and flexible this method of building scenes
can be.

nn  For the purposes of this lecture, pretend you’re a young


Shakespeare, and you want to write a play about Richard III. And
early on in your script, you want a scene where your nefarious hero
amazes the audience with his devilish powers.

nn  What if your hero did something darkly magical, without the aid
of dark magic? To that end, what amazing spell could your hero
cast? The biggest miracle in the Bible is the resurrection, so what
if Richard III did his own demonic version of a resurrection, turning
something dead into something alive? What if he showed up at
a funeral and turned it into a wedding?

nn  History books tell you that Richard III married Lady Anne. They also
tell you that Richard murdered a number of Anne’s family members.
What if you wrote a scene where Richard turned up to a funeral
for Anne’s murdered relative and convinced the angry and grieving
Anne to marry him and start a new family? That would definitely
astonish audiences with Richard’s devilish powers of speech.

nn  The method of reverse engineering is turning plotting into an


exercise in asking story questions and then solving them. You ask
a question, then you find a story solution.

nn  Back to your scene: How could Richard convince the relative of one
of his victims to marry him? The most straightforward approach
would be to convince her that the killing was done out of love. That
way, what seems an act of hate would be transformed into a kind
of valentine.

Lecture 6  •  Plotting Your Story Beats 52


nn  And that’s exactly what Shakespeare does in act 1, scene 2 of
Richard III. When Anne accuses Richard of having killed her family
member, Richard insists that it was an act of love. He saw a good
man so he sent him to heaven, where good men belong.

nn  Anne is skeptical, but Richard continues to insist that his apparent


acts of hate were in fact acts of devotion, swearing that he killed
Anne’s husband because he loved her, and declaring that he will kill
himself if Anne desires it.

nn  Slowly, Anne becomes unmoored from her old certainties about


Richard. She starts to believe that maybe there can be a kind of
love in hate. And if Richard’s hate is love, then perhaps her hate
for Richard can be a kind of love as well—allowing for a funeral to
become a wedding.

nn  Now that you’ve reverse engineered your scene’s story structure,


how do you back-build an opening conflict to set this plot in
motion? In this lecture’s example, to maximize the demonic magic
of Richard’s spell, Anne should begin the scene on the side of God
and the saints, having no doubt that Richard and his deeds are
absolutely evil.

nn  Then Richard should flip her moral universe by suggesting that bad
things can be good. The conflict will be between Anne’s world of
moral certainty and Richard’s character of moral inversion.

nn  To establish that conflict, you can have Anne utter moral
pronouncements that Richard then flips through his dark arts of
wordplay. Anne will snap: “Villain, thou knowst not law of God nor
man; No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.” To which
Richard will respond: “But I know none and therefore am no beast.”

nn  Richard’s double meanings will muddy Anne’s clear divide between


right and wrong, suggesting that the two aren’t in fact so easy to
disentangle. Maybe wrong is right, down is up, and death is life.
Richard can then convince Anne that a funeral can be a wedding.
Success!

Lecture 6  •  Plotting Your Story Beats 53


William Shakespeare

nn  You started with your ending, which was a cognitive effect of


devilish wonder. Then you reverse engineered your middle,
which was a story structure that transformed a holy funeral into
a demonic wedding. Then you finished with your beginning, which
was a conflict between a story world of moral absolutism and
a character of moral ambiguity.

Lecture 6  •  Plotting Your Story Beats 54


THE MIDDLE

nn  The trickiest part of the reverse-engineering sequence is the


middle, that is, the part where you settle on the right story structure
to generate your desired cognitive effect. You can build these
story structures from scratch, but it usually helps to have a rough
historical blueprint to work from.

nn  When you’re not writing, always make time to mine your favorite
scripts for general story structures that generate cognitive effects
you like, creating your own mental library of story structures to
tweak, adapt, and refine.

nn  And if you ever find yourself stuck at this middle part of the process,
here’s a guideline that might help: The overarching story structure
of most scenes is usually a change in one character’s emotions
or understanding or perception of the world. Start by identifying
the character who needs to change and then put yourself in that
character’s place, asking: What would alter my mind?

nn  One simple plot trick is to give the character an emotionally


charged object, for example, in Birdman when the method actor
Mike Shiner is handed a gin bottle full of water. Another simple
plot trick is to give the character a new piece of information, like
when the customs agent at the end of The Usual Suspect realizes
the identity of Keyser Söze.

nn  These deeper character conversions often drive the main turning


points of plots. If you ever run dry of ideas on how to achieve
them, you can always use Shakespeare’s favorite techniques for
converting characters: the mirror scene.

nn  In a mirror scene, one character serves as another character’s


mirror, reflecting their behavior back in a way that causes them to
criticize themselves and change. Examples include when Laertes
serves as a mirror for Hamlet and when Beatrice serves as a mirror
for Benedick.

Lecture 6  •  Plotting Your Story Beats 55


nn  This mirror technique is flexible enough to be used in almost any
situation, no matter how far removed from Shakespearean England
you might be. In Spike Jonze’s futuristic script for Her, Theodore
Twombly falls in love with his computer operating system—and then
meets Amy, who mirrors back Theodore’s situation by revealing
that she’s romantically involved with her computer too.

A FULL PLOT

nn  After learning how to reverse engineer a scene, the next step is to


see how this same method can be used to build a full-length plot.
For your first full screenplay plot, the best way to learn is to adapt
a story from a novel, short story, comic book, memoir, or some
other preexisting narrative that you love and no other screenwriter
has adapted yet.

nn  That way, you’re starting with a proven plot structure, and you can
learn from the story choices that the original author made. This
can seem derivative, but Shakespeare adapted almost all of his
scripts, and every year the Academy gives out an Oscar for best
adapted screenplay.

nn  Even though this method allows you to harness the strengths of


a preexisting plot, it still gives you two major opportunities to be
original. First, out of all the millions of un-adapted stories out there,
you choose the one that fits with your vision. And second, you cut
and shape your source material to bring out the specific story you
see in it. Good source material can be adapted in endless ways to
emphasize different effects.

nn  When you adapt, don’t just blindly copy a plot you like. Use reverse
engineering to select a specific plot that has untapped script
potential, and then use the same reverse-engineering method to
refine and tailor the plot to achieve your intended effect.

Lecture 6  •  Plotting Your Story Beats 56


 EXERCISE

1 Find a neglected novel, short story, fairytale, or other


narrative to adapt. Identify the feeling, mood, or other
cognitive effect that the original source material creates in
you, then go back and circle the moments in the plot that
most generate this cognitive effect. Now turn one of these
moments into your own dramatic scene, drawing out and
emphasizing the story structure that creates the cognitive
effect you like.

2 Identify the conflict between character and story world that


drives your new dramatic scene forward. Next, write the
opening two scenes of your whole screenplay, establishing
the story world with minor characters in the first scene, and
establishing the main character in the second scene. At
this point, you have the beginning conflict of your script,
a key middle scene, and the final cognitive effect you want
to create. That’s the beginning, middle, and end; you can
reverse engineer the remaining parts from here.

 FURTHER VIEWING

Chinatown (1974)

 FURTHER READING

Othello, William Shakespeare


Richard III, William Shakespeare

Lecture 6  •  Plotting Your Story Beats 57


LECTURE 7

SENTIMENTAL
RETURN: CASABLANCA

T
his is the first of 12 lectures on specific movie scripts, each
picked by the Writer’s Guild of America as one of the best of
all time. Each is a different story genre, and each opens the
door to a different cognitive experience. To get the most out of each
lecture, it’s advisable to watch each movie or read the full script first.
This lecture kicks off the 12 movies with Golden Age Hollywood’s most
celebrated script: Casablanca. It will contain spoilers and a discussion
of the ending, so if you haven’t read the script or watched the film and
want to avoid spoilers, do so before reading further.
THE ENDING

nn  The step in reverse engineering a script’s blueprint is to turn to its


ending and isolate its distinct cognitive effect. Casablanca ends
after the hero, nightclub owner Rick Blaine, has been reunited
in Nazi-occupied Casablanca with the love of his life, Ilsa, who
unfortunately for Rick happens to be married to Laszlo, the heroic
leader of the Czech resistance.

nn  To preserve Ilsa’s marriage and Laszlo’s fight against Hitler, Rick
gives them his own plane tickets to freedom. Then Rick releases the
Nazi collaborator, Renault, who he’s been holding at gunpoint, and
heads south with him to join the resistance, cheerfully remarking: “I
think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

nn  Critics often complain that this ending is utterly illogical. But Rick
isn’t ashamed of being an illogical sentimentalist. In fact, he sees
his illogic as a way to fight back a Nazi advance that, at the moment
Casablanca was written, seemed poised to envelop the world. Rick
places this enormous confidence in his illogical decisions because
his sentimentalism has deep roots that go back to a time when
being a romantic wasn’t seen as a bad thing.

nn  That time was the high-water mark of Romanticism in the mid-


19th century, when poets, painters, and thinkers from across
Europe and the Americas had come to agree that reason was an
unhealthy state of mind that had helped sever human life from
the original goodness of nature. The romantics of the 19th century
leveraged art’s emotional power to overthrow the logical parts
of human brains that had rationalized violence and inequality as
necessary evils.

nn  The broad goal of Romantic art is to return people to their old


sentimental nature, restoring the utopian togetherness they had
before. And this feeling of sentimental return is exactly what
Casablanca’s ending provides.

Lecture 7  •  Sentimental Return: Casablanca 60


nn  As Rick puts it to Ilsa: “We’ll always have Paris. We’d lost it until you
came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.” Rick has thrown off
the artificial restraints of the logical present to return back to the
illogical love of the past. That love is his true nature, the original
goodness suppressed by the Nazi’s machine-world of rational order.

nn  Rick, like all romantics, believes that this deep love lies in their pasts,
and his final actions help Casablanca get back to its old self too. By
killing the Nazi officer who invades Casablanca at the beginning of
the script, by generously sacrificing his own happiness to save Ilsa’s
marriage, and by walking off arm-in-arm with his old foe Renault,
Rick returns the world to its ancient ways of generosity.

CASABLANCA’S STORY WORLD

nn  Casablanca’s script opens with a narration that briskly explains


the history of Casablanca’s occupation by the Nazis. To introduce
its own story rules, Casablanca’s script begins with a short scene
where two policeman mechanically shoot a civilian in the back,
aligning the story world with tragedy. And the script then adds its
own twist to this classic story world by showing the modern force
that’s driving the tragic in Casablanca.

nn  That modern force is the Nazi’s regime of law and order. And the
opening beats of Casablanca demonstrate the special menace of
this regime by showing that it’s destroyed the civilian’s humanity
long before cops shoot him.

nn  In these opening beats, the civilian is reduced to a series of lies and
obfuscations. He claims not to have his papers when he knows he
does, and he then tries to bluff the cops by producing papers that
he knows are expired. These pathetic efforts at lying and cheating
reveal that the Nazis haven’t just physically conquered Casablanca.
They’ve conquered it psychologically.

nn  But this story isn’t a tragedy. It’s a heroic narrative. After


introducing the tragic heartlessness of its story world, the script
then introduces the heroic characters who will battle this rule and
eventually overturn it with a rule of their own, restoring sympathy
to Casablanca.

Lecture 7  •  Sentimental Return: Casablanca 61


CHARACTERS

nn  Of those heroic characters, the main one is Rick. The script crisply
establishes Rick’s conflict with the story world through a little
vignette where a rival bar owner asks Rick to buy his musician. Rick
replies: “I don’t buy or sell human beings.” The rival remarks in dry
surprise: “That’s too bad. That’s Casablanca’s leading commodity.”

nn  But part of the brilliance of Casablanca’s script is that it doesn’t


immediately introduce Rick’s sentimental nature. Instead, it begins
by making Rick seem as heartless as the Nazis he’ll oppose.

nn  In the opening beats of the script, before Rick’s refusal to sell his
musician, Rick is cool to everyone. He plays chess by himself. He
never drinks with the customers. He speaks coldly to the black-
market hustler Ugarte and is called “very cynical” by him.

nn  In heroic scripts, this kind of opening feint is a common reverse-


engineering move because it has two powerful psychological
consequences. First, it establishes just how oppressive the story
world is by showing that even our hero is struggling to be himself.
Second, this feint establishes a conflict within the main character. It
shows Rick as a man at war with himself.

nn  This ongoing inner conflict is the special third technique discussed


back in the introductory lecture on character. It reveals that Rick
has two deep fears, first, of becoming as heartless as the fascists
he hates and second, that his heart will get himself or others hurt.

nn  From here, Casablanca’s script then introduces a series of other


characters who are also closet sentimentalists. There’s Ilsa, who’s
had to suppress her feelings for Rick in order to help her husband
Laszlo fight for the resistance. And there’s Laszlo himself, who
remarks to Rick: “Apparently you think of me only as the leader of
a cause. Well, I am also a human being.” Renault, who turns on the
Nazis in the end, is himself a closet sentimentalist.

Lecture 7  •  Sentimental Return: Casablanca 62


nn  Because the script portrays Ilsa, Laszlo, and Renault as closet
sentimentalists caught in the same inner struggle as Rick, it deploys
the special third technique for character to generate sympathy for
all of them.

nn  The lesson here is that if you want your audience to experience


a feeling of sentimental return, populate your script with plenty of
minor romantics. Use the third technique for writing characters to
make all these minor characters, including one of the antagonists,
sympathetic. If you do this in other kinds of stories, it’ll backfire.
But if you’re trying to recreate Casablanca’s cognitive effect, it’s
the blueprint.

Lecture 7  •  Sentimental Return: Casablanca 63


PLOT

nn  The core action of sentimentalism is a release from


the artificial constraints of logic into the free rush of
feeling. To generate this experience in the audience,
the first 90 percent of Casablanca’s script is designed
to manufacture an increasingly restless waiting in the
audience’s minds, prompting them to chafe against
the restraints placed on their emotions and making
them increasingly aggrieved with the cold logic of
the story world.

nn  When the restraints are released at the end of the


script, the audience throws off reason and abandons
themselves to romance. This process of generating
and then releasing suppressed feeling is driven by
a number of different plotlines, but the main one is
Rick’s relationship with Ilsa.

nn  When Sam plays Rick and Ilsa’s old song, “As Time
Goes By,” the script reveals that there’s a deep,
buried romance at its heart. And when Rick begins
drinking with his customers and the story flashes
back to Ilsa and Rick’s love in Paris, the script makes it
seem like this romance will be quickly and powerfully
restored.

nn  But then the tragic logic of the story world reasserts


itself. Paris is gone. Casablanca is a cold place. Rick
and Ilsa’s love is impossible. She’s married and her
husband is a good man who needs her.

nn  For almost two hours, the plot forces the audience to


sit in a state of waiting. Finally, Rick and Ilsa kiss, and
in the script’s final 16 pages, the plot’s slow simmer
suddenly becomes a white-hot thriller.

65
nn  The Germans close in, Rick apparently betrays Laszlo, then double-
crosses Renault, then gives up the love of his life, then shoots
a Nazi leader in broad daylight, and then escapes Casablanca. The
artificial constraints break and the true emotions burst through.

nn  This unusually back-loaded plot structure is beautifully reverse


engineered to make the audience feel the experience of a romantic
awakening. By providing a quick taste of Paris and then sharply
reinstituting the coldness of Casablanca, the plot puts the audience
in the same position as Rick and Isla, making them feel the ache of
a lost time of feeling.

Lecture 7  •  Sentimental Return: Casablanca 66


nn  And the longer the plot refuses to reunite Rick and Ilsa, the more
it makes the audience feel like their hearts are being artificially
bent against their nature. When the restraints are released on
the final pages, the audience’s romantic sentiments spring back
immediately and forcibly.

nn  Casablanca’s specific cognitive goals mean that its back-loaded


plot is not a universal formula for all stories. It’s engineered to
support a precise cognitive effect which is just one of many, many
different feelings that scripts can generate.

nn  That doesn’t mean you can’t adapt the plot of Casablanca in your
own scripts. Because if you want to give audiences the feeling of
sentimental return, the plot of Casablanca is a great one to imitate:
An extremely slow build to a release in the final 10 percent of
the script.

TONE

nn  Since the overall cognitive effect of Casablanca is the chaining


of romantic sentiment, the tone of its script is generally highly
restrained. The action and scene descriptions are terse, and the
characters famously contribute to the mood with their hard-
boiled dialogue.

nn  But to stir a feeling of sentimental resistance in the audience, the


script offers careful hints of the deep feelings locked in the story
world beneath. Its primary narrative technique for doing so is to
use its scene and action descriptions to offer sharp glimpses of the
characters’ hidden fears. For example, when Ilsa requests her old
song from Sam, the scene descriptions abruptly reveal that there’s
some deeper “mystery” here that prompts a “funny fear,” making
Sam “nervous” and “uncomfortable” and “scared.”

nn  To write a script with the tone of Casablanca, you want to create
a special kind of sentimental narrator. Like Rick, the narrator should
be a closet sentimentalist, so that its action and scene descriptions
are generally matter-of-fact and even dryly ironic. That lasts until
the key story beats: The narrator’s heart breaks through, focusing
empathetically on the characters’ deep fears and vulnerabilities.

Lecture 7  •  Sentimental Return: Casablanca 67


SCENES

nn  To reverse engineer the cognitive effect of sentimental return, the


screenwriters realized that they had to craft two different kinds of
scenes. The first kind of scene makes the audience feel as though
their hearts are being artificially constrained, prompting them to
yearn for unfettered feeling. The second kind of scene then throws
off the constraints and achieves emotional release.

nn  The script is packed full of examples of the first kind of scene.


Perhaps the most memorable is the one where Laszlo attempts
to extract the truth from Ilsa. That scene makes the audience feel
sympathetic for both Isla and Laszlo by dramatizing both of their
individual conflicts of fears.

Laszlo
  is afraid of losing Isla, but he’s also afraid of forcing her
heart, because that wouldn’t be love.

Meanwhile,
  Ilsa is afraid of hurting Laszlo by concealing the
truth, but she’s also afraid of hurting him worse by telling him
the truth.

nn  By using Ilsa and Laszlo’s soliloquized conflicts to create sympathetic


identification for two characters who both want different things, the
scene ensures that the audience will end up emotionally frustrated.
From a screenwriter’s perspective, the lesson to pick up here is that
you can generate a powerful experience of repressed feeling in
audiences by portraying two sympathetic characters in conflict.

nn  Once you’ve generated this deep emotional ache in your audience’s


hearts, you can then engineer its release. That is what Casablanca’s
script does in the scene in which Ilsa meets with Rick, addressing
him as Richard, the name he used back in Paris. As history returns,
the characters get closer to their old nature and the level of feeling
increases, until things finally escalate to Ilsa drawing a gun.

Lecture 7  •  Sentimental Return: Casablanca 68


nn  But Ilsa knows that to kill Rick would be to end her own dreams
of love. And losing this love is her deepest fear. Rick and Ilsa are
brought back together by their shared fear of living without love.
And when Rick and Ilsa throw off reason to recover their original
feelings, this scene urges the audience to do the same. In Ilsa’s
last beat of dialogue before the kiss, she reminds us that love
never fades.

 EXERCISE

1 Imagine a story world where people are forced to act


against their nature. Then introduce that world with a short
scene that shows a minor character behaving artificially.

2 Build your audience’s sense of emotional constraint by


crafting a scene between two sympathetic characters who
are in conflict. Than at the end of the scene, show how the
characters are suddenly brought together by the same
deep fear, triggering an emotional release.

 FURTHER VIEWING

Casablanca (1942)

 FURTHER READING

Introducing Romanticism, Duncan Heath

Lecture 7  •  Sentimental Return: Casablanca 69


LECTURE 8

THE TRAGIC SUBLIME:


THE GODFATHER

T
o American audiences in the 1970s, The Godfather felt like a very
fresh kind of story. But its origins were in fact very old. By telling
a story about larger-than-life passions that collide in a dark
and frightening world, The Godfather was reviving one of the ancient
experiences of tragedy, giving American audiences their own version
of Hamlet or Oedipus. And the result was an enormous success. The
Godfather became the highest grossing film up to that point in history,
beating out Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music in worldwide
receipts; it became an American classic, endlessly quoted and imitated.
This lecture studies The Godfather’s blueprint for reviving the cognitive
experience of ancient tragedy, enabling you to write a modern tragedy
of your own. If you haven’t read the script or watched the film, do so
before proceeding.
ENDING

nn  Following the method of reverse engineering, the first step in


deriving The Godfather’s blueprint will be to turn to the script’s
ending and isolate its distinct cognitive effect. The script ends with
the ascension of Don Corleone’s son, Michael, to his father’s throne.

nn  But just as Michael prepares to become the new godfather, his


wife, Kay, confronts him. She has been told that Michael has had
his sister Connie’s husband murdered. Michael responds at first by
blowing Kay off, ordering her not to ask him about his business, but
as Kay persists, he loses his temper.

nn  The last thing the audiences sees is a group of people lining up to


kiss Michael’s hand and call him by his father’s name as the door
closes on Kay, shutting her out from the throne. As the audience
watches with Kay, Michael vanishes into the darkness.

nn  His power has made him into the kind of god worshipped by his
more ancient, Italian ancestors: the Romans. They believed that
a man with the power of a Caesar could literally make himself a deity.

nn  The most powerful god in the Roman pantheon was not a kind god
or an honest god. He was Jupiter, a god of violence and sexual
conquest, who took what he wanted through murder and rape. He
had no interest in being equal partners with his wife or treating
her honestly.

nn  How did the Romans feel when they imagined this god? They
experienced a cognitive effect called the tragic sublime; it’s
terror mixed with wonder. And it’s the feeling produced at the
end of The Godfather. The audience catches a glimpse of a great
inhuman force that shuts them out before they can rationalize or
understand it.

Lecture 8  •  The Tragic Sublime: The Godfather 72


STORY WORLD

nn  The world at the beginning of The Godfather’s script is very like


the world at the end, because in tragic scripts, the story world of
tragedy defeats the hero, returning in the final scene to where it
started. Therefore, the same way that The Godfather’s script ends
on a note of sublime power, it begins on a note of sublime power.

nn  To convey this world-building rule, the script begins on the face of
the minor character Bonasera, who has come to visit Don Corelone,
the original godfather. But the audience doesn’t see Don Corleone
at first—only Bonasera. That’s because the way to preserve a sense
of majesty is to hide the god from view.

nn  The script then heightens this mood of the tragic sublime by having
Bonasera tell a story about the American dream. It turned out to
be a lie. In good, democratic fashion, Bonasera gave his daughter
her “freedom.” But the result of freedom was not a happy one. His
daughter was treated “like an animal” by men who tried to satisfy
their lust on her. So now Bonasera has come to Don Corelone for
one thing. He has come “for justice.”

nn  The Godfather takes the Roman view that humans are by nature
animals of lust and violence. And in this wild of nature, the only
thing that can save people from destruction is a strong patriarch:
the godfather.

CONFLICT

nn  Right after the script establishes its story world, it introduces


Michael, a tragic hero in conflict with its story world. Michael is Don
Corleone’s son, a full-blooded member of the family. But instead of
introducing Michael as a son who has submitted to his father’s rule,
the script carefully introduces Michael as an outsider in conflict with
his family.

Lecture 8  •  The Tragic Sublime: The Godfather 73


nn  The first hint of Michael’s conflict is introduced right after the
opening scene, when Don Corleone is organizing a family photo
at his daughter’s wedding. The only problem is that Michael isn’t
there, leading Don Corleone to dismiss the photographer.

nn  The script then continues to emphasize Michael’s apartness by


later having him arrive at the wedding in a Marine Corps uniform.
Michael’s choice of clothes aligns Michael with a longstanding effort
to destroy the family loyalties that perpetuate the Don’s authority.

nn  By signing up to be a Marine, Michael has sworn a deep commitment


to democracy. He’s put his life on the line for something bigger
than his family. He’s gone to war in the service of people with whom
he has no direct blood ties, fellow Americans he’ll never meet. This
military service on behalf of American democracy is the deepest
possible threat to his father’s power, which relies entirely on the
primordial culture of family bonds.

nn  But of course, Michael will become his father. In tragedy, the main
character’s deepest fears always come true.

Lecture 8  •  The Tragic Sublime: The Godfather 74


PLOT

nn  In the case of The Godfather, the plot has to turn Michael into his
father, pulling him back into his family and making him an old-
world patriarch. And the script does this simply and elegantly
through revenge.

nn  The plot of The Godfather uses the blood cycle of revenge to break
democracy. To accomplish this, The Godfather reverse engineers
a sequence of plot points that draw Michael step-by-step into the
code of revenge, severing his connection to American democratic
justice and pulling him back into his family.

nn  Revenge begins when someone in a family is made a victim, and


since the script for The Godfather wants Michael to become his
father, it starts its reverse engineer by making Michael’s father into
a victim.

nn  The method: Don Corleone takes a stand against organized


narcotics, transforming himself from a predatory thug into a civic-
minded hero. Don Corleone then becomes a victim when the
script has him attacked for his resistance to the narcotics business,
reigniting Michael’s dormant family loyalties.

nn  From here, the script reverse engineers an escalation in Michael’s


loyal behavior by having him visit the hospital at a moment when
some corrupt cops have dismissed his father’s bodyguards.

nn  From here, it’s a short step from passively defending his family to
actively defending them, and Michael will soon gun down the drug
baron who shot his father. With that, Michael gets pulled into the
ancient vortex of revenge.

nn  The remainder of the plot is then reverse engineered to pull him


deeper and deeper: Michael’s new wife is murdered by a car bomb.
Michael’s older brother Sonny is killed in his car. Michael responds
with more and more violence. He is not the winner; the original
story world is.

Lecture 8  •  The Tragic Sublime: The Godfather 75


TONE

nn  The Godfather employs a special kind of god’s-


eye narrator that combines a mood of divine
power with an attention to human feeling. This
tone infuses every beat of every scene, but it’s
also there in a subtler feature of the narrative:
the transitions between scenes.

nn  Take for example the transition that follows


Sonny’s violent revenge on Carlo for beating
Connie. Sonny has just punched and kicked and
bit Carlo, smashed his head with a garbage can
lid, and finally loomed over Carlo’s unconscious
body with the threat: “Touch my sister again,
I’ll kill ya.”

nn  Then, the narrative transitions to Michael’s


wedding, the sound of church music, and
a priest chanting in the mysterious ancient
language of Rome. By connecting Sonny’s
revenge to Michael’s wedding, the narrative
establishes the yoking together of worldly
violence and otherworldly awe that defines the
tragic sublime.

nn  The more general screenwriting lesson here is


to remember that one of the most powerful
ways you can generate tone is through your
scene transitions. Carefully choose where
you stop your scenes and where you cut to
next, so that you establish juxtapositions that
communicate the deeper mood or atmosphere
you want to create.

77
SCENE

nn  The script’s most important scene is the one where Michael finally
crosses over, leaving democracy to become his father’s son. To
accomplish Michael’s transition from democrat to demagogue, the
script first needs to create an opening for Michael to insert himself
into the godfather’s realm.

nn  It does this by reverse engineering a conflict within the godfather’s


story world, as embodied in the conflict between Sonny and Hagen,
the Don’s lawyerly consigliere. Hagen is cool-headed and clear-
minded. Sonny is the opposite: passionate, impulsive, and taking
everything personally.

nn  When Don Corleone ends up in the hospital, the script reverse


engineers a crisis in the family by having Sonny and Hagen disagree
over how to handle the situation. Sonny argues for blood revenge.
Meanwhile, Hagen insists that an all-out war will destroy the family’s
business interests.

nn  This creates an opening for Michael to step in and save the


family, and no less importantly, it creates a motive for Michael to
act. Michael’s plan marries Sonny’s passion to Hagen’s reason. It
involves killing a cop out of revenge—and then cool-headedly
using the family’s resources to contain the blowback.

nn  This scene provides a simple two-part blueprint for scripting


your own hero’s tragic conversion to the rule they oppose. First,
establish a conflict between two sides of your story world’s tragic
rule, each voiced by a different character, creating sympathy for
the story world in the hero’s heart. Then show your tragic hero
resolving the conflict. In acting with heroic sympathy, the hero is
ironically helping to restore the story world that will consume them.

Lecture 8  •  The Tragic Sublime: The Godfather 78


nn  If you want to evoke the tragic sublime in your audience’s mind, you
can’t find a better blueprint than The Godfather’s script. Adopt the
tone of an omnipotent sentimental narrator and give your audience
a hero who steadfastly opposes the core rule of his story world.
And then back-build a plot that pulls in the hero, bit by bit, until
they ironically become the rule.

 EXERCISE

1 Imagine a story world ruled by an older way of life. Then,


imagine a character with a newer perspective. Now, reverse
engineer the main strokes of a plot where the character
comes into conflict with the story world, and then is drawn
step-by-step into abandoning their new perspective for the
older ways of living.

2 Write a conversion scene like the argument between Sonny


and Hagen, where the old way of life splits between two
opposite fears, generating sympathy in the heart of your
tragic hero, and drawing them into ironically saving the
story world they once defied.

 FURTHER VIEWING

The Godfather (film) (1972)

 FURTHER READING

The Godfather, Mario Puzo (novel)


Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris

Lecture 8  •  The Tragic Sublime: The Godfather 79


LECTURE 9

ROMANTIC
SATISFACTION: WHEN
HARRY MET SALLY…

T
he film When Harry Met Sally offers a blueprint for the third
of the three classic genres discussed in the earlier lecture on
story world. Those three are the heroic, discussed through
Casablanca; the tragic, discussed through The Godfather; and the
comic, discussed in this lecture. Unlike the characters of classic heroic
narratives, the characters of comedies don’t succeed in changing their
story world. Instead, just like in classic tragedies, the characters start
out at odds with the rule of the story world and end up submitting to it.
But in comedies, the characters’ submission to the world is a source
of joy. As always, if you haven’t read the script or watched the film, it’s
advised to do so before proceeding with this lecture.
ENDING

nn  The script of When Harry Met Sally ends by giving Harry and Sally
exactly what they want. Harry and Sally have spent over a decade
flirting and fighting and dating other people, but never finding what
they really want: someone who loves them for their imperfections,
freeing them from their fears and anxieties, and allowing them
to know the blissful peace of the older couples who pop into the
movie on a loveseat to tell their true stories of love.

nn  At the end of the movie, Harry and Sally sit on that loveseat
together, describing their wedding. This ending gives a sense of
completion. Its cognitive effect is known as romantic satisfaction.

STORY WORLD

nn  When Harry Met Sally begins exactly where it ends: on the love
seat. There, a man sitting with his wife gives an opening vignette.
With this opening vignette, the script establishes the core rule of
its story world. That rule is this: Love seems a crazy and impossible
dream, but it’s real and it can last forever.

nn  Romantic comedies traditionally begin by introducing their lovers


as adult children. When Harry Met Sally does that in a scene that
shows Harry and Sally graduating from college.

nn  And although the script doesn’t show us Harry and Sally’s


actual parents, the opening vignette with the love seat gives
a metaphorical glimpse. The couple on the couch is a reminder of
everyone’s parents. They tell the audience: Love can happen.

Lecture 9  •  Romantic Satisfaction: When Harry Met Sally… 82


CHARACTER

nn  Now this lecture turns to how the script establishes its two
main characters, Harry and Sally. When Harry and Sally are first
introduced, they seem very different from each other. But in one
key way, Harry and Sally are identical: They both think they have all
the answers.

nn  Sally says up front: “I have this all figured out.” At the beginning
of the script, the characters of romantic comedies always believe
they’ve got everything figured out.

nn  Harry is older than Sally, but he’s an even worse know-it-all. He


has slept with 10 women, so he’s sure that he’s seen deep into the
female mind. He’s been to law school, where he’s picked up the
answers to everything. And he’s absolutely certain that there are
no happily-ever-afters.

nn  The rule of the comic story world is the rule of true love. Harry
and Sally’s shared conflict with this rule is that they think that true
love is a naïve old fiction. Harry knows that love is really about sex.
And Sally is sure that the point of Casablanca is that women are
too “practical” to fall in love. Ingrid Bergman gets on the plane
because she’d rather be in a passionless marriage as the first lady
of Czechoslovakia.

nn  With these introductions of Harry and Sally, the script reveals the
two big lessons for introducing main characters into a comedy.
First, if you want to write a classic comedy, create a character who
deludes himself or herself into thinking they know more than their
parents and their generation. And second, if you want to write
a classic romantic comedy, create two characters who delude
themselves into thinking they know more than their parents.

Lecture 9  •  Romantic Satisfaction: When Harry Met Sally… 83


PLOT

nn  The basic plot of all classic romantic comedies


is the same. The two main characters are
successively humbled, coming to realize that
they didn’t have it figured out after all. Comedy
needs to humble the characters’ certainty in
order to reward them with a happiness they
thought was impossible. That reward is what
makes the plot of comedies different from
tragedies. After the characters of comedy are
humbled, they don’t end up broken and alone.
They find completeness in each other.

nn  To reverse engineer a modern comic plot, you


therefore have to establish that your main
characters are emotionally complementary, so
that if they got together, they’d make each other
whole. Then you need to establish that there’s
only one thing keeping the characters apart.
In ancient comedies, that one thing is usually
the characters’ parents. In modern comedies,
that one thing is usually the character’s more
psychological guardians: their fears.

nn  The plot of a romantic comedy works by


slowly dialing up the egoistic fears that keep
the characters from taking the risky plunge
into love. The script for When Harry Met Sally
begins on a road trip that exposes all of Harry
and Sally’s youthful insecurities. The script
continues to intensify their anxieties and
vulnerabilities, until finally, Harry and Sally’s
different concerns about getting hurt merge
into the same big fear: If they get together and
it doesn’t work, then they really will have no
one. They’ll be totally and permanently alone.

85
nn  To then get Harry and Sally over this shared fear and bring them
together, the script follows the second part of the romantic-comedy
recipe by having the characters humbly admit that they didn’t have
things all figured out like they thought they did.

Harry
  shakes off his god-like contempt for human mortality by
confessing that it’s the ephemeral things that he loves about
Sally the most: the peculiar way she orders food, the way she’s
always cold, the little crinkle on her nose.

Sally confesses that Harry breaks all her rules of practical logic:

“You say things like that and you make it impossible for me to
hate you. And I hate you Harry. … I really hate you.”

nn  This puts Harry and Sally in the terrifying position of giving up


everything they thought they knew. But when they let go of their
fears and step out of themselves, they make each other complete.

nn  If you want to craft a classic romantic comedy, this is the way to
build your plot. Have your characters start by clinging to self-
protective fears. Then, keep them clinging for page after page after
page until they bravely humble themselves at the very end.

nn  Since this plot structure is essentially an extended tease, the


hardest part is to keep your audience intrigued and hopeful, so
they don’t stalk off in the middle. One of When Harry Met Sally’s
metanarrative tricks for getting its audience to sweetly torture
themselves is the plot device of emphasizing Harry and Sally’s
converging lives.

Lecture 9  •  Romantic Satisfaction: When Harry Met Sally… 86


nn  First, Harry and Sally go on the same trip to New York. In the next
vignette, they once again travel to the same place, on the same
plane. When they land, they proceed to walk in exactly the same
direction on the same motorized walkway. Then, both Harry and
Sally’s relationships end together; they start healing and going
on first dates with other people at the same time. Then their best
friends get together, and so on.

Lecture 9  •  Romantic Satisfaction: When Harry Met Sally… 87


nn  The more the script keeps up this device of showing Harry and Sally
on convergent paths, the more it seems inevitable that their hearts
will finally come together, prompting the audience’s minds to keep
leaping ahead to envision the couple together. The ultimate effect
of this extended flirt is to intensify the romantic satisfaction of the
script’s conclusion.

nn  The lesson: Use your plot to build the audience’s sense of longing
by showing the main characters get closer and closer and closer,
and even sleeping together, but never becoming one. Make your
audience imagine how happy the main characters would be by
showing other couples getting together and finding happiness,
again and again and again.

nn  Eventually, the audience wants the main characters to get together


so badly that they think they can’t take it anymore. When your
audience feels that deep romantic ache, they won’t feel like your
happy ending is an empty cliché. They’ll celebrate it as the perfect
way to satisfy their hearts.

TONE

nn  Like the plot of When Harry Met Sally, the tone is reverse
engineered to humble the audience’s certainty. The narrator of
When Harry Met Sally is a comic narrator who shows the audience
life through the main characters’ eyes. And crucially, the particular
part of life that the narrator of When Harry Met Sally shows is their
moments of ironic discovery.

nn  For example, the script gives this action description in its opening
beats: “Harry spits a grape seed out the window, which doesn’t
happen to be down.” As written, this description shows the reader
the world exactly through Harry’s eyes, leading the reader to
repeat Harry’s mistake of thinking the window is open: “Harry spits
a grape seed out the window.”

Lecture 9  •  Romantic Satisfaction: When Harry Met Sally… 88


Lecture 9  •  Romantic Satisfaction: When Harry Met Sally… 89
nn  By involving the audience in the characters’ point-of-view as they
undergo these moments of ironic discovery, this style of comic
narration debunks old romantic clichés while maintaining the
audience’s connection to the characters’ perspective.

nn  You can create the same authentic tone in your own scripts by
using a comic narrator. Win your audience’s trust with a narrator
who doesn’t fall for the old lies and clichés, but honestly depicts
the real world. When your script shows two regular people falling in
love, the audience will buy it.

SCENE

nn  The cognitive effect of romantic satisfaction is reverse engineered


by first creating a deep heartache in the audience. The script
simultaneously withholds true love while making the audience
crave it. An example is the split-screen phone scene in When Harry
Met Sally.

nn  In that scene, both characters are revealed in the inner sanctums
of their bedrooms, and both of them are still afraid of admitting
that they don’t have it all figured out. Harry plays the wise guy and
mocks Sally for her youthful opinions. Sally denies that she ever felt
that way.

nn  By revealing Harry and Sally’s fears, this scene follows the old recipe
for empathy, making the audience care for the couple and desire
their happiness. And to intensify this desire, the scene continues
by showing that the characters have regressed all the way back into
their deepest, teenage insecurities.

nn  As they lie in their beds, their hearts exposed and vulnerable,
they’ve never been closer. And so Sally reaches out, asking Harry:
“What will you do?” But instead of taking the opportunity to ask
Sally to be with him, Harry cracks a joke. They hang up the phones,
still friends but unable to admit they secretly want something more.

Lecture 9  •  Romantic Satisfaction: When Harry Met Sally… 90


nn  This approach marries authenticity with empathy, creating
a genuine sense of heartache in your audience that you can deepen
by never quite allowing the characters to give up their fears until at
last, at the end of the script, the split-screen dissolves, and the two
beds become one.

 EXERCISE

1 Plot a story about a wrongheaded character. Have him or


her disagree in one crucial way with the wiser and more
mature characters around him or her. Then reverse-engineer
a sequence of story beats that encourage the character,
step by step, to admit their mistakes.

2 Write a scene in which two ex-lovers have the same deep


fear, but can’t admit it to each other, and instead end up
parting ways over something superficial.

 FURTHER VIEWING

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

 FURTHER READING

The Most of Nora Ephron, Nora Ephron

Lecture 9  •  Romantic Satisfaction: When Harry Met Sally… 91


LECTURE 10

SUSPENSE AND
RELIEF: JAWS

T
he blockbuster Jaws’s overall structure and cognitive effect
confirms the value of reverse-engineering. That’s because when
director Steven Spielberg first read the novel on which the script
would be based, the one thing he knew for certain was that he liked
the ending. Spielberg, in other words, wanted to keep the ending and
reverse engineer the rest. Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched the film
or read the script yet, you’ll want to do so before proceeding.
ENDING

nn  The novel ends with the main character, Martin Brody, watching
as the wounded shark approaches him; doom seems apparent,
but the fish dies. The key phrase from the ending is: “Nothing
happened.” The reader is tensed in expectation, waiting for a shark
to kill Brody—and then nothing. This allows an exhausted Brody to
kick toward the shore.

nn  The feeling is not one of triumph, although Brody does defeat the
shark. Instead it’s a feeling of relief. The bad thing the audience is
afraid of doesn’t occur.

nn  Spielberg wanted the movie script to end just like this, and it does.
After a great white shark launches a series of terrifying attacks in
the waters of New England summer beach town, the new police
chief, Brody, recruits oceanographer Matt Hooper and a local shark
hunter to search for the great white in the middle of the ocean.

nn  The shark rams their boat, killing the hunter and trapping Brody and
Hooper. But just when it seems like Brody and Hooper are doomed,
Brody finally kills the shark. In an instant, the terror is gone. Brody
and Hooper swim back to shore, exhausted and relieved.

STORY WORLD

nn  The script begins by immediately establishing the core rule of its


story world in its opening lines, which place the reader looking
out through the razor teeth of the shark’s gigantic jaw. With this
opening, the script communicates that the story world of Jaws is
like a shark: blind, devouring, and selfish.

nn  To reinforce this rule of action, the script then moves from the
shark’s belly to a summer beach party fueled with alcohol and the
hope of casual romantic hook-ups. This is the human version of the
shark’s belly.

Lecture 10  •  Suspense and Relief: Jaws 94


nn  In the final beats of this scene, a young couple run drunkenly toward
the ocean as the shark pulls toward the shore. The couple wants the
feeling of salt water on their bodies. The shark wants something to
fill its hungry stomach. And as blood fills the water and a human leg
drifts down to the ocean floor, the script viscerally communicates
the dark side of this story world of animal consumption.

nn  That dark side is that the appetites of different animal natures will
inevitably conflict. And when they do, the result is violence.

Lecture 10  •  Suspense and Relief: Jaws 95


nn  The grandmaster of movie suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, once
remarked that the way that movies create suspense is by showing
a bomb under a table. Once the audience sees the bomb, they’re
just waiting for it to go off. The longer the audience waits, the more
tense they get.

nn  The world of Jaws is reverse engineered to be a bomb. By itself,


a shark can’t kill anyone. But what about when that shark is floating
off the shore of a town where vacationers want to feel the pleasures
of the water and where the greedy locals are determined to keep
the beaches open to line their pockets? The big lesson here is that
if you’re writing horror, engineer a core rule for your story world
that works like a bomb.

Lecture 10  •  Suspense and Relief: Jaws 96


CHARACTER

nn  A main character is usually established in conflict with story world.


So how would you reverse-engineer a character in conflict with the
animal world of Jaws? The character would have to be the opposite
of an animal, one who’s out of touch with nature. Their deep fear
would be the pain that natural appetites can cause. That character
is the film’s protagonist, Brody, a former city man who feels out of
place in nature.

nn  Since Brody feels out of place in nature, he can’t fully trust his
instincts. He’s more cautious than everyone else around. When
Brody’s son runs in bleeding from his hand, Brody reminds the
boy in exasperation that he told him not to use the swing until he
fixed it. In the little contrast between Brody and his son, his central
conflict with the world emerges.

nn  As for the script’s antagonist: Sharks and other non-verbal


entities don’t make good antagonists because the only way
the main character can oppose them is through blunt physical
action. Suspense scripts typically include a human, or at least
a speaking, antagonist.

nn  Antagonists embody the core rule of the story world, so the


antagonist in Jaws is a human shark with a blind appetite: Larry
Vaughn. Larry is the town’s mayor, and he attacks and bullies Brody
for closing the beaches. He wants the money from beach season,
regardless of the consequences.

Lecture 10  •  Suspense and Relief: Jaws 97


PLOT

nn  The plot for Jaws follows a two-part recipe. First, it


dials up the pressure by constraining the physical
space available to the characters, making Brody and
his companion Hooper feel increasingly trapped,
and creating a growing sense of claustrophobia.

nn  This shrinking of space begins in earnest when


Hooper and Brody set out on the ocean to hunt
Jaws. The moment they push off from the dock, the
world is reduced to the size of their little boat.

nn  Then, their little boat becomes disabled, so their


available room shrinks again. Before, Brody and
Hooper could at least move around the ocean, but
now they’re stuck in place.

nn  Next, Hooper ends up in the shark cage and Brody


ends up in the sinking cabin. The world tightens
around them, closer and closer and closer.

nn  Jaws then follows the second part of the recipe


by creating moments of false hope. One of these
moments of false hope occurs when some fishermen
catch a tiger shark. They stand triumphantly with
the big creature, posing with “Beach Closed” signs
while even the usually cautious Brody lets down his
guard, convinced that the nightmare is over.

nn  That lasts until Hooper starts worrying: The


tiger shark’s tooth radius doesn’t seem quite
like the one from the killer shark. Slowly, relief is
replaced by a gnawing doubt. This use of false
hope is another classic suspense technique.
Stephen King uses it frequently, and the more
moments of false hope you can salt into the script,
the more the audience comes to distrust any
positive signs.

99
TONE

nn  When Spielberg read Jaws the novel, he immediately disliked its


tone, finding it too grim. If a story is consistently bleak, then the
violence becomes expected. The viewers quickly become numb,
unable to feel suspense.

nn  Spielberg reverse engineered the tone to be violence-free. Instead


of being harsh and difficult, the tone is light, playful, and fun. It
constantly seduces the viewer into relaxing before providing
a shocking jolt.

Lecture 10  •  Suspense and Relief: Jaws 100


nn  Spielberg achieved this tone by hiring a sitcom writer to take
a final pass on the script, making the dialogue bantering and
light. Take the dialogue given to Quint, a professional shark hunter.
That’s a serious business. But Quint is a man who likes apricot
brandy. He raises his glass to swimming with bow-legged women.
And he sees Hooper’s shark cage and launches into an ode to fair
Spanish ladies.

nn  The effect of this lightness of tone is to ward off numbness and an


oversaturation of horror, making the serious intrusions of violence
feel more shocking. The big lesson here is to try incorporating two
very different kinds of tone into your suspense scripts: a lighter,
warmer tone that dominates, setting your audience up for sudden
pivots into the heartless dark.

SCENE

nn  The key to creating relief is to reverse engineer suspense, and


the most effective way to reverse engineer suspense is to put the
audience’s minds into anxious overdrive. An example of a scene
that accomplishes this in Jaws is the one with Alex Kitner, the
young boy who paddles out into the ocean on his raft. The scene
begins by reestablishing the conflict between the story world of
animal appetite and a thoughtful, Brody-like character.

nn  Just like the teen swimmers at the beginning of the movie, Alex
loves the water. It’s a visceral, animal pleasure for him. He’s been in
the sea so long that his fingers are starting to prune. But he doesn’t
care; he can’t wait to get back on his raft. Alex reintroduces the
audience to the core rule of the story world: a world filled with
material appetites.

nn  In conflict with Alex is his mother. She notices his pruning fingers
and sets a time limit on his water play. The mother is a mini-version
of Brody. She’s the vigilant, thoughtful character who worries about
our appetites and where they might lead.

Lecture 10  •  Suspense and Relief: Jaws 101


nn  From here, the script introduces a light and unserious tone through
comic routines like the councilman who approaches Brody: “Hey,
Marty. We got a lot of problems downtown but I got a lot of
problems at the house I wish you could take care of. One, I’ve
got some cats parking in front of the house, I can’t get down to
the office. And that garbage truck, next to the office, has got to
be moved.”

nn  It’s like a sitcom: The world is suddenly one where people’s greatest
concern is who’s parking the garbage truck where. This tone is
infectious. Even Brody, who begins the scene fidgeting nervously,
is encouraged to join in the banter with the locals and his wife.

nn  By boosting the urgency with its opening conflict, and then relaxing
the mood with its unserious tone, the scene sends a mixed signal
to the audience’s brains: Is there an active threat here or not?

nn  To further scramble the audience, the scene repeats this dynamic of
building up tension and then releasing it by layering in a sequence
of fake shocks. First, Brody mistakes a black bathing cap for the
shark. Then, he mistakes a couple wrestling in the water for the
victims of an attack. Finally, accepting that his mind is playing tricks
on him, Brody relaxes and lets the kids go out and swim.

nn  As Brody enjoys a massage from his wife, the film eases out into
a relaxed wide shot of the ocean—when terror strikes. The dog
disappears. The shark’s point of view appears. Brody, who hates
the water, is trapped on the shore, unable to help the kids. And the
scene creates a sense of claustrophobia in the audience’s minds by
increasingly anchoring its gaze in Brody’s point of view, boxing the
audience in.

nn  At last, everyone gets out of the water. This turns out to be
a moment of false hope: The script shows Alex’s mother, weeping
mournfully on the beach, unable to find her son. Making us realize
that we can never relax, even when we’re out of the water.

Lecture 10  •  Suspense and Relief: Jaws 102


nn  The lesson here is to reverse engineer your own scenes to do the
same thing to your audience’s minds, building tension by sending
mixed signals about whether things are dangerous or carefree.
Finally, end on a beat where your audience exhales, only to realize
it was too soon.

 EXERCISE

1 Imagine a story world that’s like a bomb waiting to go


off. Something about the deep laws of the world make it
inevitable that violence will erupt. Now, back-build a plot
that makes the effective space of that world get smaller and
smaller, so it feels like holding a hand grenade in a room
where the walls are closing in.

2 Write a scene of false hope where you raise a series of false


alarms, again and again and again, convincing the audience
that nothing will happen—until you suddenly bring in a real
threat at the end.

 FURTHER VIEWING

Jaws (1975)

 FURTHER READING

Jaws, Peter Benchley (novel)


Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard, Matt Taylor

Lecture 10  •  Suspense and Relief: Jaws 103


LECTURE 11

ROMANTIC LONGING:
ANNIE HALL

W
oody Allen’s film Annie Hall promises comedy and delivers
tragedy. But the script’s journey in and out of dream shows
the audience a deeper fact about the nature of their lives:
People’s most profound sense of meaning comes not from happiness
but from desire. If you want to fill audiences with the life-affirming sense
of longing, Annie Hall can give you a blueprint to chase. As always,
check out the film’s script or watch the movie before proceeding to get
the most out of this lecture.
ENDING

nn  The ending of Annie Hall almost didn’t happen. It was created


after the movie had wrapped and was already in previews. This
late-stage creation of the ending seems to run against the method
of reverse engineering. But in fact, Woody Allen knew his ending
all along.

nn  From the beginning, Allen knew exactly what he wanted for the
cognitive effect of the ending. It was there in his original title for
the movie: Anhedonia, which means a feeling of emotional want.
That certainty about his desired cognitive effect enabled him to at
last reverse engineer a plot ending that generates anhedonia in
audience’s minds.

Lecture 11  •  Romantic Longing: Annie Hall 106


nn  The script for Annie Hall chronicles Alvy Singer’s attempts to come
to terms with the end of his relationship with the title character,
Annie Hall. And after jumping backward and forward through Alvy
and Annie’s lives, the film comes to a close with their last moments
together, as the characters embrace and say goodbye. Annie
crosses the street, and Alvy watches her go. Then Alvy leaves too.
Only his voiceover lingers behind.

nn  Put in cognitive terms, this ending splits the audience’s minds in


two. The part of the mind fed by visual senses has the experience
of a physical present in which love does not exist and Alvy and
Annie are gone. But the part fed by the mind’s eye of memories has
the experience of a love that did exist and might exist again.

nn  This inner mental division between an ironic detachment and


a sentimental immediacy creates a longing to be whole again. The
feeling of Romantic Longing is the ultimate cognitive effect of
Annie Hall’s script.

STORY WORLD

nn  The script begins by introducing the core rule of its story world
through a monologue by Alvy. The world is a place of rampant self-
absorption. To establish that this self-absorption is the essential
rule of the entire story world, the script cuts right into a scene
where young Alvy is dragged by his mother to see a doctor.

nn  That scene shows that to Alvy’s mother, nothing’s bigger than


Brooklyn—even the universe. All the characters in the script are
trapped within their own first-person worlds, creating a story world
filled with unrequited desire.

nn  Again and again, the characters of Annie Hall make efforts at love,
trying to find something outside to complete them. But because
the characters are all egocentrics who can never really get past
themselves, they inevitably end up returning to their own self-
involved expectations, still yearning for something more.

Lecture 11  •  Romantic Longing: Annie Hall 107


nn  If you want to create romantic longing in your next script, try
borrowing Annie Hall’s blueprint for establishing a tragic story
world of constant, unfulfilled desire. Begin with one monologue,
followed by another and another and another, until the script
becomes a tapestry of overlaid voices.

nn  To maintain this cognitive effect through to the end of your script,
keep the monologues coming, until you conclude, like Annie Hall,
with a monologue by the same character who began at the start.

CHARACTER

nn  The typical way for scripts to establish their main characters is


through their conflict with the story world. But if Alvy is himself his
own world, how can he be in conflict with it?

nn  The answer is that Alvy is in conflict with himself; he’s at war


with his own mind, desires, insecurities, hopes, and fears. This is
a clever twist on the usual way of establishing the conflict between
character and story world.

nn  Alvy is not at war with the Nazis or the Feds or a shark. Instead, he’s
at war with his own mind, his own desires, his own insecurities, his
own hopes and fears. For example, in one dialogic monologue (or
soliloquy), past Alvy and present Alvy disagree with each other.

PLOT

nn  Woody Allen’s goal from the beginning was to create a story that
generated romantic longing, an unrequited desire in the heart
for love. The plot is reverse engineered to generate a feeling of
endless yearning by repeating the same mini-narrative of hope and
disappointment over and over. It catches Annie and Alvy in a circle
of desire and frustration, never bringing them full satisfaction, but
also never letting them give up.

Lecture 11  •  Romantic Longing: Annie Hall 108


nn  The script begins with the failure of Alvy and Annie’s relationship,
showing their romance as it comes apart. But it then swiftly
flashes back to the beginnings of their relationship and slowly
chronicles the blooming of their affections. The plot starts with
a disappointment, and then withdraws back into itself, returning to
an earlier moment of hope.

Woody Allen

Lecture 11  •  Romantic Longing: Annie Hall 109


nn  The script also juxtaposes Annie against Alvy’s earlier romantic
partners, Allison and Robyn, establishing a doomed pattern of
tragic repetition that Annie seems to shatter. The plot conjures
tragedy and then appears to break it with the introduction of Annie,
convincing the audience, as tragedies always ironically do, that this
time it’ll be different.

nn  Annie and Alvy’s relationship is weird, idiosyncratic, and magical. It


gives the audience the feeling of discovering a remarkable person
they couldn’t have dreamt up. Alvy and Annie forget their old
selves and their previous expectations, and they find love.

nn  But then the plot spirals back. Annie and Alvy’s relationship frays
apart and the mood reverts to what it was at the beginning of
the script. The script showed the audience at the start that things
went bad.

nn  Just when it seems like the relationship will disintegrate, there’s


one more burst of hope. Annie invites Alvy over. He kills a spider.
They reconcile. It seems like it’s going to be different—and then it
falls apart, just like before. Yet even so, when the movie ends and
the relationship is finally over, the script uses its final voiceover to
make sure the audience doesn’t forget the original dream of love.

nn  If you want to write a script that generates this same aching sense
of romantic longing, you can engineer your plot the same way. Start
your script with the collapse of a character’s dream, then flash back
for an in-depth account of the heady days of hope when the dream
first began, showing your audience all the ways that this dream is
different from previous dreams that didn’t work out.

nn  Then, when the story finally catches back up to the failure that
kicked off the start of the script, introduce a moment of false hope
before the dream collapses one more time. Even as the fantasy falls
apart, end your script on the promise of a future dream.

Lecture 11  •  Romantic Longing: Annie Hall 110


TONE

nn  To create a mood of unrequited yearning, Annie Hall is narrated


from a split perspective that constantly mingles authentic feeling
with ironic meta-commentary. This style of narration leads the
audience to feel two states of mind at once: passionate and wise,
making the audience want to bring these two states together. But
the split perspective never quite makes it to the altar.

nn  A dramatic splitting of the tone between authentic emotion and


ironic meta-commentary occurs in the scene where Annie and Alvy
are kissing in bed. Alvy abruptly stops, complaining that Annie
feels removed.

nn  At that point, Annie’s mind separates from her body, like a ghost,
and sits down in a chair to draw. Her body remains in the bed,
locked in an embrace with Alvy. In a single instant, the audience
sees both the honest truth about how Annie really feels, and the
greater irony in it.

nn  Like the other meta-narrative devices of Annie Hall, these divided


selves point you to the deeper, more subtle method that the script
uses in all of its beats to create its special tone. The script has its
characters honestly contradict themselves. Annie Hall’s famous
lobster scene shows how it works.

nn  At first, Alvy is scared of a lobster, and Annie thinks he’s being
silly. But when Annie finally catches the lobster, Annie and Alvy’s
perspectives flip. Annie turns serious and Alvy begins joking.

nn  Even though the core of the scene remains the honest emotions
of the characters, the audience’s minds are spurred into a meta-
commentary state by the realization that Annie and Alvy have just
swapped roles.

nn  If you want to recreate Annie Hall’s tone, have your main characters
earnestly contradict themselves again and again. Make the
audience feel that their actions are at once authentic and ironic.

Lecture 11  •  Romantic Longing: Annie Hall 111


SCENE

nn  Next, this lecture will flesh out the script’s


blueprint for romantic longing by looking
at one of its key scenes. The way to create
romantic longing is to have two soliloquizing
characters fall in love and then go around and
around in ironically earnest plot circles. Since
a soliloquy is a conflict of fears, what should
those characters’ two deepest fears be?

nn  It’ll boost the irony, both comic and tragic, if


both main characters share exactly the same
two fears. And since the characters are looking
for love, their first fear would naturally be
a fear of romantic rejection. And their second
fear would be a fear of getting trapped in
a relationship with the wrong person.

nn  When the two characters meet, they’ll


tragicomically soliloquize the same two fears:
one, that the other person won’t love them,
and two, that the other person will love them
for the wrong reason.

nn  This is exactly how Annie Hall establishes


Annie and Alvy’s relationship in its famous
terrace scene. In that scene, the subtitles
tell the audience that Alvy and Annie aren’t
really communicating with each other. They’re
soliloquizing to themselves, caught in the same
two fears.

nn  Sometimes Alvy and Annie are afraid that the


other person will think that they’re stupid or
shallow, so they put on an act to impress them,
like when Alvy pontificates about aesthetic

113
criteria. But at other times, they’re afraid this act will get them into
an empty relationship with someone who doesn’t know them, like
when Annie worries that she’s attracting a schmuck.

nn  To learn to use this subtext yourself, all you need to do is write
a line of dialogue that expresses one of a character’s two fears,
then follow it with an unspoken action beat that expresses the
character’s opposite fear. Then, for the character’s next line of
dialogue, express that opposite fear, and follow it with another
unspoken line of subtext that reverts back to the original fear.
Continue this cycle.

nn  If the transitions between fears feel too abrupt, slow them down,
so that the fears more gradually wax and wane. And once the
dialogue is working, you can erase the lines of subtext. It was just
scaffolding to keep the structure clear in your mind. That’s what
Annie Hall’s scene does in its second half when it drops its subtitles;
the cognitive effect of romantic longing remains.

Lecture 11  •  Romantic Longing: Annie Hall 114


nn  And to wrap your scene, do what this scene does when Annie and
Alvy agree to go to the same place for opposite reasons. Annie
wants to go to a club to sing naturally and be herself; she doesn’t
want any more bad relationships with people who want her to be
somebody else. Alvy goes to win a kiss. She’s afraid of being loved
by the wrong person. He’s afraid of being rejected.

 EXERCISE

1 Write a scene that blends authentic feeling with irony by


having a character honestly and earnestly contradict herself
without admitting it.

2 Imagine a character who has an impossible dream but


who never quits, even though he fails and fails and fails
again. Now outline a script that begins with his most
crushing failure, then flashes back to the start of his dream,
chronicling his struggle to achieve, and making it seem
like this time really will break the old tragic cycle and be
different. And when the story finally catches up to your
character’s crushing moment of failure, add one more story
beat to close the script: his determination to try again.

 FURTHER VIEWING

Annie Hall (1977)

 FURTHER READING

When the Shooting Stops ... The Cutting Begins, Ralph


Rosenblum and Robert Karen

Lecture 11  •  Romantic Longing: Annie Hall 115


LECTURE 12

BIG WONDER:
STAR WARS

G
eorge Lucas wrote the script for the original smash-hit Star Wars
film over many years and many different drafts with input from
many other creative partners. It was a self-conscious attempt to
create a universal myth that would resonate with audiences everywhere.
Note: For brevity, this lecture will refer to the film as simply Star Wars,
though its official title is now Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope.
You’ll get the most out of this lecture (and avoid spoilers) if you’ve
watched the film or read the script before proceeding.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY

nn  Lucas credited the influence of Joseph Campbell, who about 25


years earlier had studied the myths of dozens of ancient cultures
and arrived at the conclusion that they were all faces of the same
primordial myth, an idea he called the Hero’s Journey. The basic
idea is that a hero goes across a threshold into the unknown, is
helped through trials and temptations, then undergoes death,
atonement, rebirth, revelation, and finally battles his way back to
the known world.

nn  To explain how cultures who’d never interacted could all have
arrived at this complex, multi-stage story, Campbell adopted Carl
Jung’s view that all human brains shared a deep story language
made up of universal archetypes. This idea is enormously influential,
but hasn’t managed to live up to its promise.

nn  Hollywood has commissioned thousands of Hero’s Journey films,


most of which have failed, and none of which have repeated the
miracle feat of Star Wars. And amateur writers have produced
millions of Hero’s Journey scripts, almost all of which have vanished
without a sound.

nn  One problem: Everything about Campbell’s theory has been


debunked by modern neuroscientists. There are no eternal
archetypes in the human mind. Nor are there universal myths
shared by all human cultures. Anthropologists, folklorists, and
literary scholars have shown that there’s enormous variety in
the stories that different cultures tell. Yet even so, there remains
the undeniable fact that Lucas set out to create a global story
and succeeded.

Lecture 12  •  Big Wonder: Star Wars 118


ENDING

nn  At the end of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker manages to save the Rebel
Alliance from the evil Galactic Empire by destroying the Death
Star. As the script tells us: “The Death Star bursts into a supernova,
creating a spectacular heavenly display.”

nn  The Death Star’s nirvanic explosion is achieved through Luke’s


use of the Force, the mystic power that unites the cosmos. It’s
a spiritual, immaterial power that helps destroy the Death Star—not
Luke’s heroic human qualities like courage or determination.

nn  This spiritual feeling is relentlessly emphasized in the final scene


of the script. After Han Solo returns from helping Luke, Leia
praises him for having left behind his crude materialism: “I knew
there was more to you than money.” Then Han and Luke embrace,
putting aside their romantic competition over Leia to display
a brotherly love.

nn  This turn toward the spiritual is the distinct, cognitive effect of Star
Wars. The ending of the script encourages the audience to believe
that there is a heavenly wonder beyond. Terms for this effect
include spiritual awe or big wonder.

nn  Most subsequent Hollywood executives and screenwriters have


located the secret to Star Wars in the plot and the characters that
Lucas borrowed from Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. But science
reveals that the success of Star Wars is due to a different story
element than plot or character. That story element is tone.

Lecture 12  •  Big Wonder: Star Wars 119


TONE

nn  A script’s tone tells the reader how to see the


story world. The script for Star Wars uses its
opening lines to tells us exactly how it wants
us to see: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far,
far away…” A vast sea of stars serves as the
backdrop for the main title. A rollup slowly
crawls into infinity.

nn  The crawl goes on to reveal that the rebels have


stolen the plans for the Death Star. Princess
Leia is fleeing with those plans so that she
can “save her people and restore freedom to
the galaxy.”

nn  Lucas borrowed the idea for the crawl from


his favorite childhood movie, which made
him feel a sense of spiritual awe. That movie
was the 1940 serial Flash Gordon Conquers
the Universe.

nn  When Lucas saw Flash Gordon as a child, it


inspired an enormous sense of wonder. But
when he went back and rewatched it later as
an adult, the film seemed a little ridiculous.
Therefore, Lucas took the pulp details of Flash
Gordon and invested them with a heightened,
mythic tone.

nn  He does that in three ways in his opening


crawl. First, instead of setting his story in Flash
Gordon’s sci-fi future, Lucas sets it in the long
ago past, instantly giving the plot a mythic feel.

121
nn  Second, Lucas distills the idiosyncratic details of Flash Gordon
into simpler, more general concepts. For example, instead of Flash
Gordon’s Ming the Merciless, Star Wars has the Empire. Ming the
Merciless has never been seen by anyone, but everyone knows
what an empire is.

nn  Third, Lucas uses the opening crawl to invest everything with


a sense of bigness. The script tells us that the words pass over “a
vast sea of stars,” that drums “echo through the heavens,” and
that the words disappear into “infinity.” This sense of bigness is
the primordial feeling of spiritual awakening; the audience sees
something so vast that it exceeds their ability to count.

STORY WORLD

nn  Star Wars opens on a chase scene that crisply reveals the story
world’s core rule of action:

A tiny silver spacecraft, a  Rebel Blockade Runner firing lasers


from the back of the ship, races through space. It is pursued by
a giant Imperial Star Destroyer. Hundreds of deadly laserbolts
streak from the Imperial Star Destroyer, causing the main solar fin
of the Rebel craft to disintegrate.

nn  Here a giant imperial ship, so massive that it’s earned the name
Star Destroyer, attacks a tiny rebel spacecraft that’s designed not
to fight, but to flee. The world of the story is governed by power.

nn  The Empire is bigger than everyone else, and it uses its power not
to protect the weak but to crush them. That’s the big rule that
defines the story world of Star Wars: Might makes right.

CHARACTER

nn  In conflict with this story world are the film’s three main characters,
Luke, Leia, and Han Solo. This part of the lecture will focus on Luke
and his antagonist, Darth Vader. Here’s how Luke is introduced:

Lecture 12  •  Big Wonder: Star Wars 122


“A light wind whips at him as he adjusts several valves on a large
battered moisture vaporator which sticks out of the desert floor
much like an oil pipe with valves.”

nn  The audience’s first glimpse of Luke is as a kind of repairman.


And the particular object that the script shows Luke servicing
isn’t mighty and impressive. It’s an old bit of equipment on some
outback farm. And that’s how the script establishes Luke as the
opposite of the Empire. The Empire lords over everyone; Luke
modestly bends down to help.

nn  The script is equally efficient in its introduction of the main


antagonist, Darth Vader.

The awesome, seven-foot-tall Dark Lord of the Sith makes his


way into the blinding light of the main passageway. […] Everyone
instinctively backs away from the imposing warrior and a deathly
quiet sweeps through the Rebel troops. Several of the Rebel
troops break and run in a frenzied panic.

nn  Vader is the human equivalent of the Star Destroyer. He embodies


power with his sheer size. Like all antagonists, he’s the embodiment
of the story world’s central rule.

PLOT

nn  There are some major story points of Star Wars that match
Campbell’s narrative of the Hero’s Journey, for example, Luke’s
refusal of the call when he initially refuses to learn from Obi-Wan.
But the script also ignores many stages of the Hero’s Journey and
draws heavily on other sources like Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 peasant-
princess adventure The Hidden Fortress. It also draws on Flash
Gordon, which begins with a death ship that’s been sent to kill
a whole planet and draws to a close when the hero pilots his ship
into the enemy’s fortress, exploding it.

Lecture 12  •  Big Wonder: Star Wars 123


nn  Like Flash Gordon, which was released in 12 different episodes,
Star Wars was not meant to be a standalone film. It was supposed
to have multiple, serial episodes. And like Flash Gordon and other
TV shows, Star Wars doesn’t have one single hero. It has three: Luke,
Leia, and Han.

nn  If you want to recreate the plot of Star Wars, start by sequentially
introducing three heroes. Don’t write a script about a single hero
on a journey. It will come off flat, especially since different audience
members connect more to different heroes.

nn  To generate an experience of a spiritual awakening, your plot


needs to make the audience look at the same thing twice. The first
time, the thing will seem familiar. The second time, it will brim with
a higher meaning.

nn  In plot terms, this means that the story should be reverse
engineered as a giant loop, ending on a sacred return to a place
that had previously embodied the regular rule of the story world.
That is exactly what happens in the “heavenly” moment at the end
of Star Wars when Luke returns in his X-wing to the Death Star that
he had previously escaped in the Millennium Falcon.

nn  In your own script, you can similarly choose any point to begin and
end your story loop. The important thing is simply to bring your
audience back to an ordinary place that they can reexperience with
new spiritual belief.

SCENE

nn  The secret to creating big wonder in the minds of an audience is to


lead them through their own conversion experience. The audience’s
brains have to be prepared for belief, and the crucial step in doing
that is to create doubt about whatever it believed before.

Lecture 12  •  Big Wonder: Star Wars 124


Lecture 12  •  Big Wonder: Star Wars 125
nn  Star Wars has a number of scenes that do this, but the most critical
part of the process occurs in the Millennium Falcon scene where
Luke learns to find the Force. Luke is training with his lightsaber
when Obi-Wan almost faints from what he calls “a great disturbance
in the Force … as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror
and were suddenly silenced.”

nn  With this beat, the scene reestablishes the dramatic stakes by


refreshing the core rule of the story world, reminding the audience
of an imperial power that can kill millions in an instant. This
tremendous, imperial menace in turn prompts an urgent question:
How are the characters supposed to defeat the Empire?

nn  The script provides its best answer in the form of Obi-Wan, who
solemnly informs Luke that the path to victory is to join with the
Jedi and believe in the Force. In 1977, audience members likely
would have found this hokey: a half-baked spiritualism totally at
odds with the darker, skeptical, post-Vietnam ethos of the 1975
Oscar-winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the 1976
Cannes Film Festival winner Taxi Driver.

nn  The script for Star Wars includes a clever device to ease the
audience out of skepticism. The script inserts Han Solo into this
scene to explicitly call out the Force for being a hokey religion. The
cognitive effect: The audience drops its guard.

nn  Then the script illustrates the uglier side of being a skeptic. It notes
that Han Solo has an air of “smugness,” which is not a great look.
When Luke can’t find the Force, he flails around “blindly” with his
lightsaber, which isn’t a great look either. This scene acts as a mirror
for the audience’s jaded unbelief.

nn  That lasts until the last beats of the scene, when Luke lets go of his
own doubts and suddenly succeeds. This made the 1970s audience
wonder what would happen if they dropped smugness and gave
belief a chance.

Lecture 12  •  Big Wonder: Star Wars 126


nn  If you want to convert your audience to big wonder at the end
of your script, reverse engineer an earlier scene that operates as
a mirror to their own skepticism. End that earlier scene with a quick
pivot that illustrates the promised land of belief, showing your
audience what they’re missing and preparing them for the later
story beat where you convert them into the big wonder of full belief.

 EXERCISE

1 Invest one of your favorite childhood stories with mythic


power by setting it in a distant past, by describing its
characters and setting with more general words, and by
investing it with a cosmic vastness and interconnectedness.

2 To practice your god’s-eye tone, describe the same object


or place in that story from two different sets of eyes, one
skeptical and one spiritual, so that when your audience
reads the descriptions back to back, they’re awoken into
big wonder.

 FURTHER VIEWING

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)


Star Wars (1975)

 FURTHER READING

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell

Lecture 12  •  Big Wonder: Star Wars 127


LECTURE 13

CHARM: THE
PRINCESS BRIDE

T
he Princess Bride was not a blockbuster. In fact, it was the
41st-highest-grossing film of 1987. Though it wasn’t an instant
hit with audiences, it became a sleeper hit after its release on
home video and grew into one of the most beloved films of all time.
The reason: It became a secret treasure shared between people. This
lecture takes a look at how that happened. To get the most out of it and
avoid spoilers, read the movie’s script or watch it before proceeding.
ENDING

nn  The Princess Bride is a fairytale of true love read by a grandfather to


his sick grandson. At the conclusion of the script, both the fairytale
and its framing story of the grandfather reading to his grandson
are finished But the last lines of the script reveal that neither
story is really over. The grandfather will come back tomorrow
and read the story again because he and the child have made
a special connection.

nn  The script’s final line is an in-joke: “As you wish…” In the secret
language shared by the characters in the fairytale, “As you wish”
means “I love you.” Now this secret language is shared by the
child, his grandfather, and the audience. The technical term for this
cognitive effect is charm: the forming of a secret connection and
special sense of pleasure.

nn  This feeling of sharing a secret is why The Princess Bride is


considered so quotable. To smile at its off-beat quotes is to
participate in a secret community.

STORY WORLD

nn  Unlike the previous scripts covered in this course, The Princess


Bride seems to have two worlds: the framing or “real” world of the
grandfather and the child and the fairytale world of Florin. But both
worlds are really extensions of the same underlying story world.

nn  Early on, the script establishes that the rule of the framing world
is an unhealthy loneliness: A sickly coughing kid is playing a video
game by himself. Likewise, the fairytale world is introduced with
the character Buttercup playing her own solitary games, riding by
herself and bossing a character named Westley around.

nn  Like the child, Buttercup gets a kind of pleasure from these lonely
pursuits. But it’s not a deep and lasting satisfaction. It’s just
a passing ego trip.

Lecture 13  •  Charm: The Princess Bride 130


nn  The main antagonist in The Princess Bride is Crown Prince
Humperdinck. He’s self-centered, forcing Buttercup to marry him
as a pawn in a geopolitical chess game he has constructed in his
head and is playing by himself. This is the same rule of action:
unhealthy self-centeredness.

nn  The general screenwriting lesson here is that if you have multiple


worlds within a single script, they all should be part of one big
story world. The more specific screenwriting trick is that if you want
to generate charm, begin your script with two worlds that seem
totally different but are really the same—the structure of a riddle.

CHARACTER

nn  The first main character to be established is the grandfather,


originally introduced as an oddball. He arrives with a wrapped
book to read to the child; the fact that the grandfather bothered to
wrap it shows it’s a secret to be shared. The script continues in this
vein when the grandfather reveals that his book has helped create
a secret little community.

Lecture 13  •  Charm: The Princess Bride 131


nn  The grandfather’s father read this book to him, and then he read
it to the child’s father. This book isn’t a best-seller that the whole
world knows about. It’s a hidden gem, passed down by people in
the know. Now, the audience members get to be in the know, too.

nn  The script’s next main character, Westley, is similarly introduced as


a maker of a special togetherness. Like the grandfather, Westley is
portrayed as kooky and marginal at first. He does only two things.
First, he obeys all of Buttercup’s orders. And second, he endlessly
repeats the same phrase, “As you wish.”

nn  But slowly, the more this pattern repeats itself, the more a hidden
meaning becomes clear. Eventually, Buttercup realizes the words
mean, “I love you.” And to Buttercup’s surprise, she then realizes
that she loves Westley back.

Lecture 13  •  Charm: The Princess Bride 132


nn  If you want to create the The Princess Bride’s same cognitive effect
of charm, you can follow its blueprint. First, portray a main character
as weird. Then, reveal that there’s something more beneath the
character’s surface. Finally, turn that something more into a mutual
affection between two characters. What initially seemed odd
becomes a source of charm.

TONE

nn  Charm heavily relies on tone. The Princess Bride’s tone is gently


intriguing. The script achieves this by infusing every beat of action
with the lightest hint of irony. An example is the beat between the
assassin Inigo and Westley, now wrapped in special packaging as
the man in black.

nn  In a script filled with quirky moments, this is one of the quirkiest.
Two men are about to duel to the death, when Inigo asks the other
if he has an extra digit on his right hand. It seems utterly random.
It’s funny, but only in the sense of being peculiar.

nn  But then the man in black’s response converts this feeling


of strangeness into a genuine smile: “Do you always begin
conversations this way?” The man in black’s question to Inigo
implies the sense of a hidden meaning to life. He suggests that
Inigo’s random question is not actually random. It reflects some
deeper, hidden truth.

nn  Perhaps this truth is that Inigo has an unusual way of starting


conversations. Or perhaps the truth is just that everyone in Florin is
completely insane. Either way, it’s ironic.

nn  If you want to establish a tone that charms your reader, follow
the lead of The Princess Bride’s ironic narrator. Make gentle
juxtapositions between the serious and the silly that hint at
something more beneath the surface. Bundle every beat of action
and dialogue in delicate layers of irony that hold the promise of
a special connection, a chance to join a community sharing in the
same secret gift.

Lecture 13  •  Charm: The Princess Bride 133


PLOT

nn  The plot of The Princess Bride is reverse


engineered to create an air of secrets. It works
like a constant exercise in posing riddles.
Violent assassins somehow turn out to be
thoughtful and even humane. Married women
somehow turn out not to be so married. Men
who duel with their left hand somehow turn out
not to be so left-handed. The dead somehow
turn out not to be so dead.

nn  The more times the script does this, the more


it encourages a sense of puzzles and mysteries
everywhere, even when they’re not explicitly
announced. And the script continues this tactic
of spinning plot riddles right up to the very end.

nn  This constantly repeated technique, more than


any overall plot structure, is how the plot of The
Princess Bride, like the plot of many fairytales,
generates charm. Fairytales are often rambling,
baggy, and episodic in their narratives. Their
charm does not come from an overarching
plot. It comes from lots of little episodic riddles,
each with its own quirky answer.

nn  If you want to charm, don’t make your plot


too linear. Build it around lots and lots of
little riddle-moments that the characters have
to solve. Charm isn’t about a clear, public
purpose. It’s about endless, unexpected secret
discoveries along the way.

135
SCENES

nn  Even though the overall script isn’t tightly plotted, its individual
scenes are. If you want to write a script that charms, copy the
model of the two individual scenes in this section, and then string
them together.

nn  The most powerful sources of charm are things that the entire
world has written off as ugly but that your eye reclaims. The the
script is able to make even its undistinguished minor antagonists,
the assassins Inigo and Fezzik, into charmers. Their breakthrough
occurs in a scene where they quietly rebel against their leader
Vizzini, telling him that they think there’s something wrong with
killing Buttercup, since she’s innocent.

nn  This scene begins by introducing the core rule of the story world.
The rule is that each person is unhealthily stuck on our own
private island. That’s what Vizzini threatens to do quite literally to
Fezzik: send him back, friendless and hopeless, to Greenland.

nn  Individual scenes often create their own miniarcs and ministakes


by refreshing the story world in their opening beats, like Vizzini
does when he mentions Greenland. The conflict intensifies when
Inigo resists.

nn  The way the scene portrays Inigo’s resistance is crucial. Inigo


reaches out with riddle-words that mean more than they seem on
the surface. After a moment, Fezzik cracks the secret code and
joins in until both of them are playing a rhyming game together.

nn  The second scene is perhaps the most legendary moment in The


Princess Bride: the battle of wits. After the man in black puts poison
in one of two goblets, Vizzini must choose which one to drink.

nn  Vizzini grows in confidence until he selects a goblet, drains it with


a knowing smile on his face, and promptly dies. The man in black
turns to Buttercup and explains: “They were both poisoned. I spent
the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.”

Lecture 13  •  Charm: The Princess Bride 136


nn  Just like the other scene discussed in this section, this scene first
refreshes the stakes by reestablishing the rule of the world. It
shows Vizzini’s unhealthy self-centeredness taking over everything.

nn  Vizzini vanishes into a vortex of his own point of view, becoming


more and convinced of the correctness of his own personal
perspective. He gets so far from the path of a healthy mind that
it literally kills him. Then, the man in black reveals the secret of the
wine to Buttercup, binding the two in a community of charm.

 EXERCISE

1 Write a scene about two characters with highly unusual pasts


who meet in a place where highly unusual pasts are sternly
frowned upon. The two characters engage in the usual
approved small talk until they start to suspect they might
have more in common. But to avoid persecution, they don’t
come right out and admit their strange backstories. Instead,
they drop hints and innuendos, becoming secret friends.

2 Imagine that two very different people—maybe an 18-year-


old and an 80-year-old—are in the clutches of some soul-
destroying place. Now dramatize a scene where those
two very different people create an inside joke to keep
themselves sane.

 FURTHER VIEWING

The Princess Bride (film) (1987)

 FURTHER READING

The Princess Bride, William Goldman (novel)

Lecture 13  •  Charm: The Princess Bride 137


LECTURE 14

ALIENATION EFFECT:
DO THE RIGHT THING

S
pike Lee’s scripts are designed to make audiences think deeply
and critically. His drive to make audiences think is why Lee
wrote the script for Do the Right Thing, which became a cultural
phenomenon and a box-office sensation, earning a nomination for an
Academy Award for best original screenplay. This lecture looks at Spike
Lee’s special recipe for making people think. Read the script or watch
Do the Right Thing before proceeding.
ENDING

nn  Spike Lee’s script chronicles a hot day in Brooklyn, where racial


tensions between African-American residents and the Italian-
American proprietors of a local pizzeria escalate into a brawl that
leads to a police killing of an unarmed resident, which in turn incites
a crowd to burn down the pizzeria.

nn  The script draws to a close with two quotes, one from Dr. Martin
Luther King and one from Malcolm X. Here’s a shortened version of
King’s quote: “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both
impractical and immoral. […] Violence ends up defeating itself. It
creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”

nn  Here’s the end of Malcolm X’s quote: “…I am not against using
violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-
defense, I call it intelligence.” King, in other words, utterly rejects
violence, while Malcolm X calls it smart. It’s up to the audience to
figure out which is right.

nn  The technical literary term for this experience of getting woken


by a script is the alienation effect. That is the most usual English
translation of Verfremdungseffekt, a term coined by the German
playwright Bertolt Brecht.

nn  During the rise of Nazi Germany, Brecht used the alienation effect
in scripts that spurred people to think critically about what the
Nazis were doing. This was a counterpoint to Joseph Goebbels’s
use of pro-Nazi propaganda, which shut off people’s minds by
drenching them in fear, hate, and other strong emotions.

nn  Brecht was writing and producing scripts in Germany at the time


of the Nazi rise to power. And Brecht saw that a huge part of the
Nazis’ political success was due to Joseph Goebbels’s theories
about propaganda.

Lecture 14  •  Alienation Effect: Do the Right Thing 140


Spike Lee

nn  Lee gravitated to Brecht’s techniques because he had come to


the conclusion that Hollywood was itself cranking out a form of
propaganda. Hollywood was so financially invested in pleasing
audiences that it preferred to offer them mental comfort food,
so that instead of doing the hard and honest work of serious art,
Hollywood catered to audiences with sentimental escapism.

Lecture 14  •  Alienation Effect: Do the Right Thing 141


STORY WORLD

nn  The premise of the alienation effect is that humans live in an


artificial world of propaganda and media fictions. Do the Right
Thing begins with a radio performance that starts out sounding like
a call to revolution: “Wake up, wake up, wake up.”

nn  But quickly, the style overtakes the substance. It becomes more


about the cleverness of wordplay and the intricacy of sound: “The
platters that matter, the matters they platter.” This sounds stylish
and cool, but it doesn’t mean much.

nn  That’s how the script establishes the world. It’s a world of media
patter that seems so smooth, yet is really just an empty surface. If
you want to create your own alienating story world, you can follow
Do the Right Thing’s blueprint. Find the most convincingly cool
piece of propaganda you can. Then, let it play a few beats too long
so that it loses its gloss and its freshness, revealing its superficiality
and making your audience suddenly question.

CHARACTERS

nn  Do the Right Thing’s main character is Mookie, although there’s


not the usual hierarchy between main and minor characters in
this script. To maximize the alienation effect, it’s much more of an
ensemble piece.

nn  The script introduces Mookie as the opposite of cool. He’s revealed


in a hot, steamy room that feels like the underbelly of the world.
And his first action is to be an irritant. He slips over to a sleeping
woman, tickling her lips to wake her up. And the sleeping woman
is not amused. This is her only day to sleep in, and Mookie has
ruined it.

Lecture 14  •  Alienation Effect: Do the Right Thing 142


nn  To emphasize Mookie’s disruptive potential, the script adds
a clever alienation effect by withholding the fact that Mookie is the
sleeping woman’s brother. The audience only learns of their sibling
relationship after he has crawled into bed and played with her lips.

nn  At first glance, the scene has an almost erotic feel. And when the
revelation of Mookie’s true intentions comes, it’s startling to the
audience, because their feelings were wrong.

nn  Other characters introduced as irritants include the mayor, who


squabbles with a store clerk, and Radio Raheem, who walks around
with his music annoyingly loud. The big point here is that the
script introduces many characters in conflict, and shows them all
experiencing the conflict with equal intensity, so none of them can
be subordinated to each other.

nn  By doing so, it busts up the traditional Hollywood story of a hero


who changes the system. The real truth is that people can’t sit
around dreaming of a hero to save them. They have to wake up and
realize that the only way to fix their problems is to join forces with
other people who are in the same bind.

nn  The script then departs further from the usual Hollywood model in
its depiction of the characters’ motivations. The script invests each
character with a mix of motives. For example, Mookie is portrayed
as a nuisance, then a hustler, then a father, then an opportunist,
then a social conscience. This begs the questions: What is he
fighting for? What does he most deeply believe?

nn  The antagonist—in this case, Sal—is usually a physical embodiment


of the story world’s core rule. At first, that’s what Sal is: the human
face of propaganda cool. Sal drives up to his pizzeria in his stylish
car, wearing equally stylish clothes. When conflict and raw emotion
arise, Sal immediately smoothes them over.

Lecture 14  •  Alienation Effect: Do the Right Thing 143


nn  But eventually, the script blows Sal’s cool apart.
Sal’s final line in the scene is a heated cry from
the heart: “I’m gonna kill somebody today.” So
the antagonist has his own hot conflict with the
story world, which makes the audience start to
question: Is anybody happy here?

nn  Here’s the big, three-part blueprint that you


can borrow for writing characters who create
an alienation effect:

First,
  create an ensemble of main
characters, all of whom rupture the smooth,
superficial cool of the propaganda world.

Second,
  give your characters an ironic
mix of heroic and ignoble motives, so the
audience has to think it out themselves.

Third,
  introduce an antagonist who seems
to be the face of the world’s propaganda
cool, but is then revealed to hate it. Even
if viewers identify at first more with the
antagonist than with the ensemble main
characters, they quickly feel alienated too.

PLOT

nn  The classic method for using plot to create an


alienation effect is laid out by Bertolt Brecht
in his script Mother Courage and Her Children,
which portrays the title character as she makes
the same mistake over and over.

145
nn  Mother Courage lives in a world where money is everything, so
each time she gets involved in a financial transaction, she haggles.
And every time she haggles, another of her children dies. So even
though the audience starts out feeling empathetic for Mother
Courage’s situation, the repetition of the same error, again and
again and again, makes the audience start to experience it less
emotionally and analyze it more critically.

nn  Likewise, the whole plot of Do the Right Thing is filled with identical
loops, repeating the same basic story beats over and over. An
example: Racial conflicts flare up, then die down, then flare up, and
then die down.

nn  The story world, in other words, isn’t going to change of its own
accord. The plot will keep going around and around—unless the
audience wakes up and starts to question. As Mookie’s sister Jade
puts it: “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but you can really direct
your energies in a more useful way.”

nn  If you want to craft a plot that encourages your audience to direct
their energies more usefully, try following Do the Right Thing’s
Brechtian blueprint. Give your audience a story where a negative
situation repeats itself over and over. Keep it going until your
audience’s brains wake up and decide to critically intervene.

TONE

nn  Since alienation is driven by an unresolved conflict within the


audience, the tone of Do the Right Thing is reverse engineered
to make the audience feel two conflicting things at once. Half the
time, the tone of the script is matter-of-fact realism. The other half
of the time, it’s a heightened style that seems like a self-conscious
performance. Each of these tones disrupts the other, making the
audience wonder which one is true.

Lecture 14  •  Alienation Effect: Do the Right Thing 146


nn  For example, in Do the Right Thing’s opening titles, the character
Tina is first shown in a dress, which feels more realistic. But then
she’s shown in boxing gloves, which is more costume performance.
Then she’s back in the dress before switching back to the
boxing gloves.

Malcolm X

Lecture 14  •  Alienation Effect: Do the Right Thing 147


nn  Another example is how the script describes Mookie counting
his bills in his opening scene: “This isn’t any ordinary counting of
money, he’s straightening out all the corners of the bills, arranging
them so the bills—actually the ‘dead presidents’—are facing the
same way.”

nn  Here, the script’s narrator does a little double take. Mookie’s bills
are bills, and then they’re not. They’re dead presidents.

nn  If you want to establish the same tone in your next script, you can
follow Do the Right Thing and create a narrator that sees with two
different gods’ eyes. One set sees the truth, and the other sees
another, conflicting truth. Then speak both truths, like Malcolm X
and King.

SCENES

nn  Do the Right Thing is filled with scenes that generate alienation,
from the shocking destruction of the pizzeria to the moment where
characters break the fourth wall to spit racial slurs. But none of its
scenes better creates a feeling of deep and unresolved emotion
than the one where Sal gives a special slice to Mookie’s sister.

nn  On the surface, everything seems cool. But underneath the


propaganda chill is a violent collision of unresolved emotions.
An older white man is making special food for a younger black
woman and then staring creepily as she eats it. The audience feels
unsettled.

nn  Their emotional discomfort is heightened by the way that the


scene includes the family members of the older white male and the
younger black woman. They see what’s happening, but they feel
powerless to speak up or intervene.

Lecture 14  •  Alienation Effect: Do the Right Thing 148


nn  And finally, in a classic Brechtian move, the scene ends with a line
that reveals it’s all going to happen again: “Don’t wait too long
to come back.” The plot is stuck in a circle, unless the audience
questions what they’ve just seen.

nn  If you want to prompt Do the Right Thing’s effect of critical thinking
in your audience, study Lee’s script and learn from its blueprint.
Write an unresolved ending, a superficial world, an ensemble
of irritant characters with ironically mixed motives, a conflicted
antagonist, a double-talking tone, and a circular plot filled with
equally circular subplots that go around and around.

 EXERCISE

1 Plot a story where a character makes an understandable


mistake, and then makes it again and again and again.

2 Write a scene where a character is in conflict with an


oppressive and unequal society. Give the character two
motives for fighting that society, one of those motives more
noble than the other.

 FURTHER VIEWING

Do the Right Thing (1989)

 FURTHER READING

Mother Courage and Her Children, Bertolt Brecht

Lecture 14  •  Alienation Effect: Do the Right Thing 149


LECTURE 15

REDEMPTION:
UNFORGIVEN

I
f you want to write a Western, Unforgiven is a great model to
work from. But it also offers a lesson in something bigger: how
to reclaim any story that Hollywood has left out in the cold. The
world is full of classic genres that Hollywood has forgotten: courtroom
dramas, historical epics, political thrillers, and so on. This lecture
examines how the script for Unforgiven revived the gritty soul of the
Western to give you a blueprint for bringing your own favorite lost story
back. If you haven’t watched Unforgiven or read the script, take a look
before proceeding.
ENDING

nn  Unforgiven tells the story of reformed gunslinger, William Munny,


who’s sworn off his old ways of drinking and killing for his now-
departed wife, only to be lured back for one last murderous
rampage to revenge a cut-up prostitute in Big Whiskey, Wyoming.

nn  In the last moments of Unforgiven’s script, Munny’s silhouette walks


towards his wife’s grave at dusk. This is accompanied by a crawl
of words:

Some years later, Mrs. Ansonia Feathers made the arduous


journey to Hodgeman County to visit the last resting place of her
only daughter.

William Munny had long since disappeared with the children …


some said to San Francisco where it was rumored he prospered
in dry goods.

And there was nothing on the marker to explain to Mrs. Feathers


why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer,
a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.

nn  The script ends by posing a question: Why would a good woman


marry William Munny? Her mother never understands it. But at
the end of the script, the audience feels they do: They’ve seen
Munny do terrible things, but he did them to stop worse things
from happening.

nn  Many heroes of Westerns aren’t heroes at all. Instead, they’re


antiheroes. Unlike a regular hero, the antihero has a monster in his
heart. And in his hands, he carries the same dark instruments as
the bad guys. The only thing that absolves his behavior is that the
people he murders are worse than he is.

Lecture 15  •  Redemption: Unforgiven 152


nn  The popularity of antiheroes in American storytelling touches
on something even deeper in the American psyche: the belief in
second chances. The term for this cognitive effect is redemption,
and even if you don’t want to write a Western, this effect can help
you resurrect your audience’s belief in romance, or the Rust Belt, or
justice, or some other worn and battered thing.

STORY WORLD

nn  The script for Unforgiven begins its journey into redemption by


establishing a thoroughly disenchanted story world. First, the script
relates the story of a young woman who marries a brute and dies
of smallpox.

Lecture 15  •  Redemption: Unforgiven 153


nn  Then, it introduces a brothel where an act of rough sex is
interrupted by screams from the next room, where two men
hold down a woman and cut her face with a hunting knife until
the manager puts a gun to their heads. This is a world of death
and disease, where sex is an animal act and where people cruelly
butcher one another.

nn  The local sheriff, Little Bill, arrives and promises to dispense


justice. The brothel’s owner complains that his “property” has been
damaged. The sheriff agrees, declaring that justice can be done
by exchanging one piece of property for another. In this case, he
reckons that a woman is worth seven ponies.

nn  The other women react in horror to Little Bill’s decision, but Little
Bill responds by defending the woman’s attackers. To Little Bill,
the men with the knife are actually more virtuous than the woman
they cut.

nn  That’s what passes for justice in this story world. And it reveals
that the core law of Unforgiven’s story world is a deep and ugly
dishonesty. Little Bill talks in lofty, moral tones, but instead of
enforcing justice, he excuses a horrific crime, sets the attackers free,
and then blames the victims.

nn  The lesson here is that if you want to lead your audience into
redemption, begin your script by introducing a story world where
the belief you want to redeem is dead. This meets the audience
in their current state of disenchantment, and it paints the grim
consequences of living in a place where that belief is gone.

CHARACTER

nn  After Unforgiven establishes its story world of dishonest men, it


then introduces its antihero, William Munny. The script introduces
Munny as he’s wrangling pigs in the mud with his children. He’s
approached by the bedraggled gunslinger known as the Kid.

Lecture 15  •  Redemption: Unforgiven 154


nn  The scene tells us that Munny has remained true to his wife’s
memory. He’s stuck with his kids and his hogs, doing his best to
save the healthy by separating out the sick.

nn  And the script then emphasizes the remarkable nature of Munny’s


new life by showing us that, underneath, Munny hasn’t really
reformed at all. A few beats later, it becomes clear that Munny
plays dumb in response to the Kid’s questions in case the Kid is
an assassin.

nn  With this, the script reveals that the cunning old thief and murderer
still lives in Munny. Honesty isn’t automatic to him. It’s just that he
wakes up every morning determined to work on it.

nn  By juxtaposing Munny and Little Bill in its opening scenes,


Unforgiven’s script lays out the first and third steps of its three-step
blueprint for establishing an antihero. The first step is to introduce
a false hero like Little Bill. If you want audiences to put their faith
in a self-proclaimed bad man who does good, it helps to start by
showing them a self-proclaimed good man who does bad.

nn  The third step is for you to introduce your antihero as a character


who accepts the fallen ways of the world. Unlike a true hero, the
antihero doesn’t try to change the disenchanted rule of the
story world.

nn  The second step can be found in the scene between the


introductions of Little Bill and Munny involving Alice and the
women of the brothel. When Faith reveals she has twice as much
money as anyone, Alice remarks: “Jesus, Faith. You’ve been giving
Skinny something special?”

nn  The more cash the women have, the more unspeakable the acts
they’ve done, which is to say, that the women have been engaged
in their own form of dishonesty. They’ve acted in ways they haven’t
admitted, even to each other, aligning them with the tragic rule of
their fallen story world.

Lecture 15  •  Redemption: Unforgiven 155


nn  Yet this scene also reveals that the women’s dishonesty serves
a good cause. They’re banding together to resist Little Bill and
get justice.

nn  That completes the three-step blueprint for introducing an antihero


that you can steal from Unforgiven. First, introduce a false hero.
Second, introduce a group of minor antiheroes who resist the
false hero. And third, have your main antihero come to assist those
minor antiheroes.

PLOT

nn  Unforgiven begins with a clear injustice, the cutting of Delilah’s face,


that kicks off a classic Western storyline: the hunt for fugitives that
culminates in a showdown. And then it shows the futility of heroism
by having Munny act well and accomplish no good. First, Little Bill
savagely beats the sober and noble-minded Munny. Then, Munny
falls into a delirium and thinks of heaven. Then he admits that he
doesn’t want to kill anyone.

Lecture 15  •  Redemption: Unforgiven 156


nn  The script shows Munny on his best behavior. And it also shows that
his best behavior doesn’t make the world any better. This makes
the audience slowly wish that Munny would drop his good-guy
routine and start to act a little more bad.

nn  To feed the audience’s desire to see more of the bad William
Munny, the script ramps up the dark actions of the false heroes.
And to kick off those dark actions, it introduces English Bob, who
has a hack writer, Beauchamp, follow him around to mythologize
his achievements. However, Little Bill viciously beats down English
Bob and steals Bob’s writer to mythologize his own lies.

nn  This is the old writing trick of having one shark get swallowed by
another shark. That’s how you know the second shark is really bad:
He snacks on other predators.

nn  Once the script has established Little Bill as the walking


embodiment of the old lies, it then amplifies his crimes by having
him commit another horrific injustice. He kills and tortures Munny’s
old partner Ned, then claims it as an act of law and order.

nn  With this story beat, the script tells the audience: the longer that
Munny keeps his hands clean, the more innocents will die. The
only way to fix things is for the antihero to do good by once again
acting bad.

nn  In the closing beats of the story, the script unleashes the antihero.
But Munny is far worse than the audience expects: He kills in a haze
of drunkenness, later remarking: “I’ve always been lucky when it
comes to killing folks.” And he doesn’t just defeat the antagonist in
a shootout. He executes Little Bill in cold blood, while Little Bill lies
wounded and defenseless on the floor.

nn  Then as Munny is walking out, he cruelly murders another wounded


man. And Munny’s behavior becomes even more ugly from here.
He flees town before he can die, threatening civilians on the way.
Munny’s actions combine the worst, most animal impulses: cruelty,
blind fury, and fear. Yet the result makes the world a little less bad.

Lecture 15  •  Redemption: Unforgiven 157


TONE

nn  Unforgiven adopts a special kind of god’s-eye


narrator. The narrator shows the unvarnished
reality of being a cowboy when a man starts
shooting at Ned and Munny, and Munny ends
up on the ground, his face bloodied. But it’s
not because Munny was hit by a rival gunslinger.
He just banged his head falling off his horse.

nn  Then, the narrative reveals that the man


shooting was the Kid. The Kid is so blind that
he didn’t realize it was Munny; he was never
a threat because he can’t hit the side of a barn.

nn  The effect of this honesty: When the audience


sees a glimmer of good in the actions of an old
cowboy, they can trust it’s not a fantasy. It’s
the truth. If you want your script to generate
a feeling of redemption in audiences, you’ll
want to use this kind of god’s-eye narrator too.

SCENE

nn  Unforgiven’s two-part recipe for redemption


begins by demolishing the old clichés. For
example, a demolition of the old cowboy
fantasies occurs in the jailhouse scene where
Little Bill reads Beauchamp’s saga of English
Bob. Little Bill misreads “Duke of Death”
as “Duck of Death” and from there continues
to send the whole legend of English Bob
dissolving into absurdity. Little Bill also tells
his version of the story, omitting details that
cast him in a bad light, setting him up as the
dishonest antagonist after at first appearing to
be a hero.

159
nn  The second and final part of the script’s recipe for redemption is
the doubling down on the one true myth. And there’s no better
example of this than the moment where Munny talks to Delilah, the
woman cut up in the brothel.

nn  Munny begins by wallowing in his own fears: “I thought I was gone.


I thought I was dying for sure.” So like everyone else in this story
world, Munny admits that the focus of all his thoughts was on his
own survival.

nn  But instead of making Munny angry or desperate or cruel, this


worldly self-interest makes Munny see something bigger than
himself. As he says: “I wouldn’t normally pay no notice to high
country like this. Trees. But I sure notice them now.”

nn  Out of Munny’s selfish fear of dying comes a glimpse of something


greater. The remainder of the scene then deepens this action of
good-from-bad when Delilah nervously offers Munny a “free one.”
Munny declines, prompting Delilah to blush.

nn  Delilah’s dialogue reestablishes the story world of the script as


a world of animal desires and free advances, a world where men
see only surface things. That is, until Munny reveals that he does
see the deep beauty inside her, just like he sees it in the trees.

nn  For a moment, Munny seems almost heroic. And then the script
reminds the audience of who Munny really is. To avoid either
sleeping with Delilah or hurting her feelings, Munny lies. When
Munny mentions his wife, Delilah thinks he means his wife is still
alive. So Munny dishonestly tells Delilah that his wife is back in
Kansas, watching over his “young ones.”

Lecture 15  •  Redemption: Unforgiven 160


nn  Once again, Munny doesn’t challenge the tragic rule of the world’s
dishonesty. Instead, he lives by it. But Munny doesn’t follow Little
Bill in using the lies of the world for his own craven gain. Instead, he
repurposes the world’s dishonesty for a social cause, putting the
hearts of both Delilah and his dead wife at peace.

nn  With that, the scene shows you how to double-down on the old
myth of the antihero. Give the audience a character whose selfish
fear of death opens their eyes to the greater world. Give the
audience a character who turns the bad rule of the world into an
unexpected kind of good.

 EXERCISE

1 Do a survey of your favorite old movie genre. Then, make


a list of every cliché in the genre: every character trait and
plot point that gets recycled again and again. Now, select
one cliché on that list to redeem—the one you want to
make an audience believe in once again.

2 Write a scene that demolishes one of the old clichés you


want to debunk, but redeems the core myth that you want
to keep. Then don’t just keep that myth. Double down on it.

 FURTHER VIEWING

Unforgiven (1992)

Lecture 15  •  Redemption: Unforgiven 161


LECTURE 16

SURREAL
CONNECTION:
PULP FICTION

P
ulp Fiction ushered in the indie movie revolution of the 1990s.
It became the first independent film to gross over $100 million
at the American box office, and it went on to earn an Oscar for
its two screenwriters, Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary. The film
has its own clear cognitive purpose, and its core story techniques are
derived from a clearly defined artistic tradition that stretches back to
the early 20 th century. The film’s script provides a blueprint for making
new stories feel accessible. As always, you’ll get the most out of this
lecture—and avoid spoilers—if you read the script or watch the film
before proceeding.
ENDING

nn  Pulp Fiction chronicles the adventures of a pair of Los Angeles


hitmen, Vincent and Jules, who are sent on various errands—like
retrieving a briefcase and escorting the boss’s wife, Mia—before
they witness a minor robbery in a coffee shop and then go their
separate ways. One goes to walk the earth for God, the other to
get killed on another petty criminal mission.

nn  One is about to be dead and the other has just seen the light.
They’re wearing swim trunks and crazy t-shirts; they have guns
stuffed into their waistbands. Then they step out into the sunshine
with a mysterious briefcase.

nn  This ending doesn’t make much sense unless it’s considered with
the script’s other endings: The script is broken into three discrete
chapters, each with its own conclusion.

nn  The first chapter ends with Mia and Vincent shaking hands and
sharing a private joke. The second chapter ends with two former
enemies hugging and having the exchange:

“So we’re cool?”

“Yeah, man, we’re cool.”

nn  And the third chapter ends with four desperados getting together
for a group photo. All of these endings are moments of friendship.
To experience the end of Pulp Fiction is to feel like you’ve just
made a friend. The movie provides a goofy sense of exuberance—
though it’s almost haphazard and illogical.

nn  There are many different ways that stories can communicate


a feeling of friendship. Pulp Fiction does so in a particularly bold
way. To emphasize both the unreason and the eternity of its friend
connections, the script’s final scene of the two hitmen in flip-flops
employs an artistic technique named collage, which has its roots in
a 20 th-century art movement known as surrealism.

Lecture 16  •  Surreal Connection: Pulp Fiction 164


nn  For the purposes of understanding Pulp Fiction and its use of
collage, the key feature of surrealism is its effort to locate the
deep patterns of life in something other than emotion or reason:
the imagination.

nn  In a collage, different scraps of pop culture are arranged together


into a striking new whole. Cuttings from newspaper ads might be
juxtaposed with magazine engravings or ticket stubs or photos to
create unexpected moments of imaginative togetherness.

nn  Pulp Fiction brilliantly employs this same technique in the final beat
of its script. That beat is filled with scraps of pop culture: the “I’m
with stupid” t-shirts, the gangsters, the briefcase of money, and
the other cheesy genre clichés.

nn  Yet these scraps don’t feel random. They’re carefully arranged into
an imaginative pattern that makes them feel at one with each other.
That’s surreal connection.

STORY WORLD

nn  Although Pulp Fiction is an indie script, it starts in traditional


fashion by establishing the core rule of its story world. In the
opening scene, the audience meets a young man and woman in
a Los Angeles coffee shop. The man is English, and “like his fellow
countrymen, smokes cigarettes like they’re going out of style.” The
woman is “impossible” to place: “Everything she does contradicts
something she did.”

nn  Immediately, the script establishes a story world whose rule


is that meaning has disintegrated into tiny subcultures, where
the English have their own random quirks and Los Angeles
has its own idiosyncratic breakfast routines. The result of this
fragmentation is that it’s impossible to achieve a global sense of
what anything means.

Lecture 16  •  Surreal Connection: Pulp Fiction 165


nn  The screenwriting lesson here is that if you want to convert your
audience to a new aesthetic like surrealist collage, begin by
establishing a story world that suffers from the cultural crisis
that the new aesthetic was invented to remedy, attuning
your audience to the need for a heroic artistic intervention.

CHARACTER

nn  Some critics have complained that Pulp Fiction’s


characters aren’t very well rounded. Pulp
Fiction introduces its characters in conflict
with the nihilist fragmentation of
its story world by portraying
these characters as they
create deeper moments of
imaginative connection.

nn  For example, chapter one of the


script is crammed with moments
of imaginative connection by
Jules and Vincent, perhaps most
famously when Jules cut-and-pastes
Ezekiel’s Old Testament “And you
will know my name is the Lord” onto
his and Vincent’s payback killing.

nn  Although this Biblical fragment is torn


from an entirely different historical time
and place, the imaginative force of
the association is so powerful that it
prompts Jules and Vincent to open
fire simultaneously, bringing them
suddenly together.

166
nn  Contrary to the objections of critics, the characters of Pulp Fiction
are carefully and appropriately constructed in conflict with the
story world. In fact, the very qualities of Pulp Fiction’s characters
to which critics have objected are what make these characters
appropriately surreal.

nn  The surrealist-influenced fiction of writers like William S.


Burroughs, Alice Carter, Gabriel García Márquez, and
Salman Rushdie contains characters that can also lack
a certain psychological depth. Instead, they feel more
like cultural fragments or snapshots from a dream.

nn  The screenwriting takeaway here is to not get


waylaid by supposedly universal aesthetic criteria
like the need for well-rounded characters. If you
want to write an indie script like Pulp Fiction, you
have to be prepared to follow the logic of your
own revolutionary aesthetic, even if it breaks
the art world’s supposedly unbreakable rules.

PLOT

nn  The screenwriters of Pulp Fiction


started with a classic, linear, pulp
gangster tragedy about Vincent
and his various escapades. Vincent
retrieves a briefcase for his boss, then
accidentally shoots a man and has to go
to the Wolf to get the mess cleaned up.
Next, he ends up in the coffee shop while
it’s being robbed, then goes to take care of
a double-crossing boxer, and then gets killed
by the boxer, who keeps the pulp serial going by
embarking on his own adventure.

Lecture 16  •  Surreal Connection: Pulp Fiction 167


nn  Having created this classic, linear story, the screenwriters broke
it up into fragments that they rearranged into a surrealist collage.
This out-of-order collage prompts us in the audience to keep
making imaginative connections between the different plot lines.

nn  And this Surrealist effect is powerfully reinforced when the narrative


ends where it began, back in the robbery of the LA coffee shop.
To come back to this scene is to suddenly understand all the plot
beats you didn’t get before.

nn  The big lesson here is that the way to write a surrealist plot is to
start by writing any regular genre plot. Then cut it into pieces and
arrange it into a collage. Make sure that the final story fragment
completes the first fragment, so that your plot ends on a note of
coming together.

Lecture 16  •  Surreal Connection: Pulp Fiction 168


TONE

nn  At first, the tone of Pulp Fiction seems all over the place. It’s
a mashup of different pulp genres, by turns poetic and harsh,
violent and philosophical, nightmarish and absurd.

nn  But there is an overall consistency that binds the whole together.


That binding is the tone that the surrealists found in dream. Dreams
can go all over the place. They can drift from gentleness to horror
in an instant, and yet they always have that same special dream-
like feel.

nn  The key to creating a dream feel in writing lies in the transitions


between different tonal moments. Although the script of Pulp
Fiction mixes together all sorts of different pulp fragments, its
narrator maintains a consistent tone by smoothing out the
transitions between them.

nn  The major way the narrative smooths these transitions is through


its use of odd couples. No major shifts of tone ever happen to one
character alone. They always happen to two strange friends at once.
The friends discuss the change as it happens, and as the friends
talk about it, they reinforce the connection by continually repeating
each other’s words. For example: “My little black medical book” is
replied to with “I never saw no medical book.”

nn  By recycling each other’s words, the characters bind each moment
to the next, so that their odd-couple conversations become the
thread that stitches the whole collage together.

nn  If you want to create a surreal tone in your writing, this is a great
technique to steal. Smooth the transitions between your collage
fragments by having them experienced simultaneously by two
characters who blend together into one by talking the same.

Lecture 16  •  Surreal Connection: Pulp Fiction 169


SCENES

nn  Traditional Hollywood movies engage


audiences using two big devices: empathy
for the characters and suspense generated
by the plot. But surrealism weakens both
of those normal narrative hooks by using
interchangeable characters and dream stories
that soften the stakes and give their ending
away.

nn  Reverse engineering can solve this story


problem. If the goal is to make the audience go
on the same strange journey as the characters,
the audience’s brains must undergo the
same cognitive trip as the characters. Since
sympathetic identification is unavailable, it’s
necessary to engineer each scene on two levels
at once.

nn  The first level will involve the plot-journey


taken by the characters in the story, which
is a movement from nihilism to surrealist
togetherness. The second level will layer in
extra story structures that are specifically
designed to guide the audience’s mind on the
same journey in parallel.

nn  This double layering of story structure is exactly


what Pulp Fiction’s script does. For example,
take the infamous accidental shooting scene.
In this scene, Jules has just had a religious
conversion, coming to believe that God
intervened and stopped bullets from killing him.
Vincent is skeptical. Holding his .45 casually, he
turns to Marvin, the guy in the back of the car,
to ask his opinion.

Lecture 16  •  Surreal Connection: Pulp Fiction 171


nn  In the world of the story, Vincent and Jules are spiraling into
nihilism because one of them has found religion while the other
hasn’t. They’re coming apart, like the post-modern world. But
the scene’s unexpected gunshot plunges the audience into
the same experience of shock and chaos, so that instead of just
witnessing Vincent and Jules’s transition into a state of mental
fragmentation, the audience viscerally undergoes that journey into
disorientation too.

nn  The lesson here is that if you want to create the same surreal
effect as Pulp Fiction, you have to introduce sharp shocks like the
unexpected gunshot into your script. The cognitive precondition
for surreal connection is the feeling that all reason has been blown
apart, and so to put your audience in the right frame of mind to get
surreal, you have to give them shellshock.

nn  From here, the next step is to continue the double story structure
by laying in an element that guides your audience’s minds out of
shock into surreal connection. That is what the accidental shooting
scene does by transitioning into a moment of collage. Here’s how
it works.

nn  As Jules panics about getting pulled over by the cops with blood
everywhere, Vincent tries to reassure him. This scene is thick with
the devices of collage. The characters stop arguing and go back to
repeating each other’s words: “Friendly places … friendly places …
Toluca Lake … Toluca Lake.” Jules brings unexpected parts of the
world into juxtaposition through the phone call. He and Vincent
make a new friend in Jimmie.

nn  That’s the two-part blueprint for engaging your audience with


surrealism. First, put in story beats where your characters argue,
and punctuate those beats of disconnection with sharp shocks
that make the audience feel fractured too. Second, bring your
characters together in moments of surreal connection, and

Lecture 16  •  Surreal Connection: Pulp Fiction 172


reinforce those moments of connection with the techniques of
imaginative collage, so that your audience travels side by side with
the characters into dream.

nn  After you write one scene like this, do what the screenwriters for
Pulp Fiction did and write more. Because when you leave behind
the plot techniques that traditional Hollywood scripts use to keep
the audience’s attention taut, you need to continually recreate
a sense of narrative urgency and dramatic stakes by refreshing the
cognitive conflict between nihilism and surreal connection.

 EXERCISE

1 Write a classic pulp fiction story, a Western, a romantic


comedy, or any other paperback genre you enjoy. Now
chop up the story and rearrange it into out of order chapters.
Open with a scene three-quarters of the way in, and return
back to that same scene at the end.

2 Jot down the big story beats of one of your dreams. Now,
write a scene in which two characters journey through those
story beats together, constantly recycling each other’s
dialogue as they go.

 FURTHER VIEWING

Pulp Fiction (1994)

 FURTHER READING

Collage Techniques: A Guide for Artists and Illustrators,


Gerald Brommer

Lecture 16  •  Surreal Connection: Pulp Fiction 173


LECTURE 17

BIG SYMPATHY:
TOY STORY

T
o keep the business going, Hollywood studios have a huge
incentive to make writing as mechanized and reliable as
possible. Rather than encouraging writers to develop creative
and innovative new stories, studios instead ask them to take the less
risky approach of copying what has worked in the past. But the success
of the 1995 movie Toy Story reveals that even within this industrial
storytelling machine, there’s still room to innovate. Pixar, the film’s
parent studio, cast away the current Hollywood formulas for children’s
movies and then identified a specific cognitive effect that audiences
craved but that Hollywood had been neglecting. Reminder: To avoid
spoilers and get the most out of this lecture, read the script or watch
the film before proceeding.
ENDING

nn  Toy Story chronicles the adventures of a pull-string cowboy doll


named Woody who was once the favorite plaything of his owner,
six-year-old Andy, but who gets replaced by a new space ranger
toy named Buzz Lightyear.

nn  For most of the script, Woody tries to get rid of Buzz and reclaim
his old place in Andy’s affections, until at the end, the two toys
open their hearts to each other and become buddies. They join
forces to escape the clutches of the toy-destroying neighbor, Sid,
and make their way home.

nn  In the final beats of the script, Buzz and Woody sit together as
Andy opens his Christmas presents. The first present is a Mrs.
Potato Head, and the toys all cheer and congratulate Mr. Potato
Head on his new life partner. But the script doesn’t end on this
upbeat moment. Instead, there’s one more present left for Andy to
open—which turns out to be a toy-chewing puppy.

nn  Even though Buzz and Woody do their best to laugh, this is not the
ending they were hoping for. The script began with Woody being
replaced by a new plaything, and the script now ends with both
Woody and Buzz being replaced.

nn  The key difference: Buzz may have arrived exactly back where
Woody was, but now there are two of them sitting in Andy’s
bedroom, grimacing and smiling weakly together. Woody no longer
needs to look alone into the tragic truth that time is passing. Buzz
feels sympathy for Woody, and Woody feels sympathy for Buzz.

nn  Instead of moving in one direction, the sympathy moves reciprocally


between two characters. The audience joins in, too, because
people realize that someday, the world will move on without them.

Lecture 17  •  Big Sympathy: Toy Story 176


nn  At the time that Toy Story was produced, Disney’s studio machine
didn’t believe there was a great deal of profit to be made from
this honest exploration of earthly mortality. But Pixar realized that
children know about death. They see it and they want to talk about
it. Toy Story shows that there can be enormous positive power in
unbottling the dark truth of mortality.

nn  The audience’s awareness of their fleeting lives is what creates the


circle of sympathy that joins them to Buzz and to Woody at the end
of Toy Story’s script. This is what swells regular sympathy into the
cognitive effect of big sympathy.

Lecture 17  •  Big Sympathy: Toy Story 177


STORY WORLD

nn  The very first thing the script shows is a row of moving boxes.
This signals that this is a story world of transitions and change.
The second thing the script shows us is that the world doesn’t
acknowledge these changes as upsetting. Instead, it does its best
to pretend they’re no big deal.

nn  That’s why the moving boxes are decorated with crayon and
incorporated into a game. And why the game is a goofy Western
spoof where Mr. Potato Head terrorizes other toys for “Money.
Money. Money.” The reason for this emphasis on money is that
money is the moment childhood ends: Children don’t understand
money as adults do.

nn  Yet the story world of Toy Story’s script doesn’t acknowledge this
dark side of money. Instead, through the buffoonery of Mr. Potato
Head, it makes the audience laugh past it.

nn  The bigger lesson here is that if you’re writing a children’s story,


try creating a story world with a deep problem that it refuses to
acknowledge. That’s the world that children know: a world of dark
conflicts and difficulties that adults keep hurrying them past, telling
them not to look.

CHARACTER

nn  Against its story world of smiling change, Toy Story juxtaposes two
main characters, Woody and Buzz. Woody sees the future coming
and he does his best to stop it. Buzz doesn’t see the future and he
crashes on, unchanging.

nn  Each of these characters resist different aspects of the story


world. Woody resists the world’s insistence that change is normal.
Buzz, meanwhile, resists the idea that change has to happen at all,
clutching his cardboard packaging as though it will last forever.

Lecture 17  •  Big Sympathy: Toy Story 178


nn  But even though Woody and Buzz
are different on the surface, they’re
really two sides of the same
coin. This is how all people
resist difficult changes in their
lives: They simultaneously
fret about the changes and
deny that they’re occurring.

nn  The general trick you can


pick up from Woody and Buzz
is a technique for creating
multiple heroes. Give them
the same root conflict and
fear, but have them battle
their fear in different and
even conflicting ways. They
seem rivals on the surface, but
eventually reveal themselves to be
brothers in the fight.

Lecture 17  •  Big Sympathy: Toy Story 179


PLOT

nn  Reverse engineering involves adapting a preexisting story structure


that generates the rough cognitive effect you want, and that’s
exactly what Toy Story does with Hamlet.

nn  Shakespeare’s play has a five-act structure, and Hamlet himself


goes on a five-part journey.

The
  five-part structure involves first bereaving the character
(Hamlet loses his father).

Then
  comes external conflict (Hamlet feuds with the world,
killing his mother, for example).

Next
  comes inner conflict (which manifests in Hamlet’s “To be,
or not to be” soliloquy).

After
  that comes inner resolution (Hamlet realizes he is not
alone).

The
  final step is bereaving the audience (Hamlet dies).

nn  The script of Toy Story follows this same five-part structure. Here’s
how it works.

The
  first part is when Woody is confronted by the arrival of
Buzz. This displaces Woody.

The
  second part occurs when Woody throws a temper tantrum
that ends with Buzz being knocked out the window.

The
  third part is when Buzz and Woody fight. As they fight,
they drag themselves into deeper and deeper problems.

The
  fourth part is when Buzz and Woody stop fighting and
recognize their shared mortality. Buzz finally realizes that he is
just a toy, and although this is a brutally disillusioning moment,
it enables him and Woody to reconcile.

Lecture 17  •  Big Sympathy: Toy Story 180


The
  fifth part is when Woody and Buzz are replaced by the
puppy. They don’t literally die like Hamlet does, but they’re
about to get chewed.

nn  If you want to generate big sympathy in audiences, you won’t find
a more time-tested model than Hamlet and Toy Story’s five-part
plot. Write a plot about someone who suffers a loss, driving them
to rage against the world and themselves, before they see that
others have suffered the same loss. In the very last moment, they’re
lost themselves.

TONE

nn  To reverse engineer a tone that creates big sympathy, Toy Story’s
script alternates between a sentimental and a comic narrator.
This has the effect of turning the entire script into a soliloquy
between the perspectives of Woody and Buzz. When the narrator
is sentimental, the tone is anxious, worried, and dark, like Woody.
When the narrator is comic, it’s playful, carefree, and joyfully
oblivious, like Buzz.

nn  One of the dark, Woody moments occurs when Sid blows up the
toys’ friend Combat Carl with a firecracker, prompting the script
to bleakly intone: “A large black scorch mark is all that remains
where Combat Carl once stood.” This terrifyingly solemn moment
literalizes the ultimate horror that Woody worries about. Childhood
will end, and the toys will be destroyed.

nn  At the opposite end of the spectrum are the comic moments of
narration where the script breathes with Buzz’s oblivious sense of
joy. An example is when Buzz and Woody are about to be blown up
like Combat Carl, until Buzz activates his toy wings and they escape.
The moment is so joyful even Woody forgets to worry.

nn  This back-and-forth tone permeates the whole script. If you want


to create big sympathy, try this technique of alternating between
a comic and a sentimental narrator. The goal is to move your
audience’s mind through a big, script-length soliloquy.

Lecture 17  •  Big Sympathy: Toy Story 181


SCENES

nn  The most challenging kind of scene to write in a script like Toy


Story’s is the one where sympathy is generated between two
previously opposed characters. This is the crucial moment where
regular old sympathy becomes a circle of reciprocal sympathy that
draws the audience in.

nn  The most straightforward way to accomplish this is with the trick of


the mirror scene. Toy Story uses a mirror scene to make Buzz and
Woody sympathetic for each other. The scene begins with Woody
trapped in a milk crate, asking Buzz for help. At first, Buzz is too
dejected to help, but eventually, Buzz grows up.

nn  Woody tries to talk Buzz out of his funk, telling him how great and
important it is to be a toy. But Buzz can’t go back to being a child.
He finally sees what Woody sees, grasping his own mortality.

nn  This seems to be the end of the line for Buzz and Woody. They
finally agree—but unfortunately, what they agree on is that being
a toy is hopeless. And then suddenly, Buzz leaps into action. He
hoists the milk crate off Woody and the two of them join forces to
get back to Andy.

nn  A moment of mirroring is what causes Buzz to shake off his despair.
When Buzz glimpses his own feelings of insignificance in Woody,
he loses his sense of tragic isolation. He realizes that someone
else feels exactly like him, and so he experiences a deep sense of
sympathy that bonds him and Woody together.

nn  If you want to create big sympathy in your next script, write a mirror
scene like this. Have your main character see the reflection of their
own condition in their great rival, finding a moment of sympathy.
Then, snatch both characters away to a fate that mirrors back the
audience’s own future doom.

Lecture 17  •  Big Sympathy: Toy Story 182


 EXERCISE

1 Make a list of difficult changes that people go through.


Maybe some of them are changes you’ve been through
yourself. Then sketch a story where a character experiences
this change, wrestling against it internally and externally,
before at last finding a bigger community of individuals
who’ve has been forced through the change too. End your
story by making the audience feel that the change is coming
for them too.

2 Write a mirror scene where a character with a problem


realizes that their biggest rival is facing the same
problem, shifting them from opposed antagonism into
mutual  sympathy.

 FURTHER VIEWING

Toy Story (1995)

 FURTHER READING

To Infinity and Beyond: The Story of Pixar Animation


Studios, Karen Paik

Lecture 17  •  Big Sympathy: Toy Story 183


LECTURE 18

EXISTENTIAL
MEANING: FARGO

F
argo was the Coen brothers’ sixth film, shot modestly on an indie
budget. Expectations were low. But it became an international
hit and earned an Oscar for best original screenplay. However,
everything about the script is a little odd. Which raises the question:
How does something so peculiar become so popular? A place like
Fargo, North Dakota, has its special charms, but most people don’t live
there. This lecture explores how Fargo negotiates this paradox. To get
the most out of it and avoid spoilers, read the script or watch the movie
before proceeding.
ENDING

nn  At the end of the film, after the failed arch-villain Jerry is dragged
away weeping in his underwear, Fargo’s script closes with an
intimate domestic scene of Brainerd, Minnesota, police chief Marge
Gunderson and her husband Norm in bed together.

nn  The scene shows that a three-cent stamp with a mallard duck on it is


very important to Norm; he painted it. The scene also shows Marge
is devoted to Norm. She sees something special in his eccentric
ways. She makes the effort to say something to make Norm feel
good about his tiny victory.

nn  In the same way that Norm cherishes his duck and Marge
cherishes Norm, fans cherish Fargo for its eccentricities. The
broader, philosophical term for this feeling of personal meaning
is existentialism.

nn  The feeling of existential meaning is the cognitive effect that the


ending of Fargo guides the audience into. It provides an answer
to the bleak meaninglessness of modern life by revealing that the
answer is that every person can give it meaning. The fact that other
people might not understand is exactly what makes it special.

STORY WORLD

nn  The script starts by establishing the world as it exists without


existentialism. The opening beat of the script establishes a story
world devoid of meaning. The world is presented as a nothing but
white on white, void of lines or color, an empty canvas.

nn  For the existentialist, this empty canvas is an opportunity to make


meaning, like Norm when he sits down with his paints. But as the
script goes on to make clear in its next few beats, this liberating
sense of possibility doesn’t exist within the normal day-to-day of
Fargo’s story world.

Lecture 18  •  Existential Meaning: Fargo 186


nn  Most of the people in this story world don’t see its blank
nothingness as a source of freedom. Instead, they feel trapped and
oppressed by the infinite white. An example is Jerry Lundegaard.
As one of the film’s antagonists, he puts a human face on the core
rule of the story world.

nn  In the film’s opening scene, Jerry arrives in a dive bar with a plan to
take control of his life. He’s going to hire a couple of men to kidnap
his wife and extort a hefty ransom from his bullying father-in-law.
But no sooner has Jerry met the prospective kidnappers than he
promptly finds himself out of his depth.

nn  When the world doesn’t turn out like Jerry wants, he becomes
exasperated and panicked and angry. He eventually attacks his
own car with an ice scraper. He tries to get the money he thinks
is his due by lying to his father-in-law and double-crossing the
kidnappers.

nn  Jerry, in other words, tries to impose his will on the world. But
instead, he only adds to the chaos and the conflict.

CHARACTER

nn  The alternative to this story world is an existential stance. To be


an existentialist is to step back from the fight. It’s to acknowledge
that life can mean different, even opposite, things at once. And it’s
to find meaning in one’s own personal interpretation of the world,
while permitting others to do the same.

nn  In Fargo, the character who most embodies this alternative to


the story world is Marge. It’s more accurate to refer to her as an
alternative to the story world than as in conflict with the story world
because the world of Fargo is itself conflict.

nn  The script introduces Marge by showing her as she’s woken up in


the middle of the night by a phone call. With this little story beat,
the script crisply establishes what it’s like to live in a world that you
can’t control. You want to sleep. The world wants you awake.

Lecture 18  •  Existential Meaning: Fargo 187


nn  One might expect Marge to get upset when her sleep is disrupted.
But instead, her response is “OK. There in a jiff.” She doesn’t fight
the world; she rolls with it.

PLOT

nn  Marge’s nature begs the question: Since Marge is a source not of


conflict but of peace, how does the film have a plot? One bold
method: The script waits a very long time to introduce Marge—
almost 30 pages. The script spends an unprecedented amount of
time with Jerry, stoking up the world.

nn  A second method: The script makes Marge a detective. Rather than
being the source of the conflict that moves the plot forward, Marge
is a cop who tries to eliminate that conflict and restore the peace.

nn  Having put these two plot elements in motion, the script then builds
them out into a simple, two-part story structure. First, the script
ramps up the nihilist conflict. Jerry and his various confederates
all hatch schemes to bend the world to their will, only to see these
schemes backfire.

nn  The second big action is Marge’s discovery of her own personal


meaning. She makes this discovery not by trying to bend the world
into alignment with her own will, but by interpreting what it means
to her.

nn  The script accomplishes most of this work by introducing Mike


Yanagita, an old friend of Marge’s who has no necessary relationship
to the rest of the plot. This is another daring move by the script,
but like the script’s other bold choices, it’s a logical consequence
of its existential aims.

Lecture 18  •  Existential Meaning: Fargo 188


nn  By introducing a random individual into the story, the script gives
Marge a dramatic opportunity to take her own meaning from the
chaos of the world. Marge does this initially by rebuffing Yanagita’s
attempts to seduce her. She has made her personal choice, and
that’s Norm.

nn  Then Marge takes her existentialism a step further. When she learns
that Yanagita was lying about his wife, she revisits Jerry, thinking
that perhaps he was lying about his wife too. There’s no strict
reason the two men’s behavior should be connected. But Marge
follows her hunch, and it pays off for her.

nn  An important point: Marge doesn’t confuse her own personal


sense of meaning with the greater way of things. As she says to
the last remaining kidnapper when she apprehends him: “And
here y’are. And it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”
That’s existentialism: to find your own way in a world that you never
piece together.

TONE

nn  The tone of Fargo’s script generates an experience of existential


meaning by cleverly merging the god’s-eye and the ironic narrators.
This combination of the ironic and the god’s eye is established in
the script’s opening title card, which reads:

This is a  true story. The events depicted in this film took place
in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names
have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has
been told exactly as it occurred.

nn  Like a god’s-eye narrator, this narrator declares that it sees


the absolute truth. But like an ironic narrator, this narrator also
juxtaposes the cosmic with the trivial, putting the mountain of
absolute truth next to the pebble of Minnesota in 1987.

Lecture 18  •  Existential Meaning: Fargo 189


nn  This combination of the ironic and the god’s-
eye has the immediately noticeable effect of
making everything in the script feel at once
absolutely serious and ironically absurd. This
hands the audience the existential power to
choose which way to see things.

SCENE

nn  Fargo’s innovative cognitive goal distances it


from the usual Hollywood hooks of empathy
and suspense. In an existential world, there can
be no real empathy, because the audience can
never know other people. And there also can’t
be real suspense, because meaning exists in
the here and now, independent of the future.

nn  Taking a page from Pulp Fiction, the script


for Fargo solves this storytelling challenge by
continually refreshing its own indie cognitive
effect, which it does by cycling continually
between scenes of intense nihilism and scenes
of existential discovery.

nn  The first kind of scene destroys meaning. An


example is the character Carl’s scene with
a parking-lot attendant. Prior to this scene, Carl
has driven the Cutlass Ciera all over the place,
leaving an easy trail for the cops to follow, until
he finally makes a half-hearted attempt to
cover his tracks by driving to the Minneapolis
International Airport and stealing license plates
from a car in long-term parking.

191
nn  Then, as Carl tries to leave the parking garage, he has an exchange
with the attendant. In the attendant, Carl is presented with the
mirror of his own condition: a minor enforcer of someone else’s
grand money scheme. But Carl has no epiphany. Instead, he howls
in fury at his reflection, getting into a public spat over $4.00 when
he’s trying to lay low in order to earn $40,000.

nn  This episode doesn’t lead the cops to Carl or cause any plot
developments to occur. It seems significant but turns out to be
meaningless. That’s how you write the first kind of scene, making
your audience feel a vacuum of meaning.

nn  The other type of scene replaces this vacuum with an experience


of existential discovery. Instead of creating a mirror scene that
fails, you’ll want to put two people together who have nothing in
common and have one of them gain an existential insight. That’s
what the script does when Marge visits the strip club.

nn  The women of the strip club are about as opposite from Marge as
you can get. They have casual sex with men they can’t remember.
Marge is in a committed relationship with a man she never forgets.

nn  The audience’s expectation in this scene is that there’ll be a clash


of personalities, and the script does everything to feed this
expectation by making the women of the strip club as grating as
the parking attendant.

nn  Like the attendant, the women are absurdly caught up in their own
little worlds, frustrating Marge’s hunt for clues by relating details
that matter to them but have no bearing on anything else. But
unlike Carl, Marge isn’t filled with violent frustration and despair
by this situation. Instead, she patiently accepts it as the way of
the  world.

Lecture 18  •  Existential Meaning: Fargo 192


nn  Rather than mocking the women or giving up in exasperation,
Marge keeps plugging on, until finally, the scene ends with an
exchange that gives Marge a glimpse of something that matters to
her investigation. In the chaos, she finds a hint of personal meaning.

nn  That is how to write the second kind of scene: Have your existential
character meet their polar opposite and discover their own private
meaning mirrored back. When you put these two scene types
together, you have the blueprint for writing your own Fargo and
carrying your audience into existentialism.

 EXERCISE

1 Imagine a world in chaos. Now imagine someone in that


world who doesn’t judge the things around her, but simply
accepts and chronicles them. Maybe she’s a marriage
counselor, or a reporter dropped into a combat zone. Plot
a little story in which your character gets drawn deeper and
deeper into the pointless mayhem. Then imagine one way
that she finds her own meaning in it.

2 Write a scene using an ironic god’s-eye narrator who lets


your audience decide whether the tone is serious or absurd.
You can describe a murder, a wedding, or anything else.
The choice is up to you.

 FURTHER VIEWING

Fargo (1996)
Fargo (TV show) (2014– )

 FURTHER READING

Existentialism for Beginners, David Cogswell

Lecture 18  •  Existential Meaning: Fargo 193


LECTURE 19

FILM VERSUS
TELEVISION: MASH
AND M*A*S*H

T
his lecture explores key differences between film and TV by
tracing them back to a single innovation in the way that TV
handles conflict. Then, it explores what this innovation means
from a writer’s perspective. This will set up the next four lectures, which
look at how to write for TV.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN FILM AND TV
nn  The most obvious difference between film and TV is quantity.
An average movie is two hours. An average TV series is designed
to run for 100 hours or more. Generating all those hours of content
presents a challenge, which writers answer by developing an
engine to power the show for season after season.

nn  There are different ways to build a TV engine, but the most
straightforward is by establishing a deep conflict in the story world.
Conflict pushes the plot. The deeper and more substantial the
conflict, the more story you can get out of it.

nn  By rooting conflict in the story world, TV writers allow for two key
things needed to please audiences for hundreds of hours. First,
they keep the plot going, and second, they keep the viewing
experience consistent. For example, no matter what episode of
Law & Order you watch, the show’s engine always generates the
same cognitive mixture of intrigue and suspense.

nn  The big lesson here is that when you’re writing a TV series, you want
to focus on the deep conflict in the story world, not on superficial
plot formulas. Audiences don’t tune in for plot formulas. They want
psychological consistency, not story-beat predictability. And in
fact, if your plots become predictable, audiences will quickly get
bored and tune out.

nn  Films have a one-off conflict between story world and character.


TV requires an engine of ongoing conflict within the story world
that keeps the plot going and the viewing experience constant.

M*A*S*H AND MASH


nn  In terms of raw audience share, the most successful American TV
series of all time was M*A*S*H, which ran on CBS from 1972 to
1983. Its finale is a helpful example to study because the show has
a companion movie, stylized MASH. If you haven’t read the scripts
or watched the film and the show’s season finale, it’s best to do so
before proceeding.

Lecture 19  •  Film versus Television: MASH and M*A*S*H 196


ENDINGS
nn  On a superficial level, the endings of MASH the film and M*A*S*H
the TV series seem the same. In both, a pair of doctors working in
a MASH unit during the Korean War pack up their medical kits and
return to America. But the cognitive effects of these two endings
are very different.

nn  In the film, the two main doctors drive away in the jeep they stole at
the beginning, as a loudspeaker blares out an ironic final comment
on the movie:

Attention. Tonight’s movie has been MASH. Follow the zany


antics of our combat surgeons as they cut and stitch their way
along the front lines. […] Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould,
Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall. […] That is all.

nn  This borrows directly from Bertolt Brecht, the originator of the


alienation effect, discussed back in the lecture on Do the Right
Thing. Brecht used to have his actors change their costumes
onstage to call attention to the fact that it was all just a show, and
the loudspeaker in MASH has exactly the same effect.

nn  And like the loops in Mother Courage and All Her Children, MASH
ends with the doctors driving away in the same jeep they came
in. The war continues on just as it was. This makes the audience
uncomfortably aware that the horror of war is persisting unabated,
encouraging them to stand up and make changes to the world.

nn  M*A*S*H the TV show ends with a very different cognitive effect.


The final episode of the TV series concludes with B.J. and Hawkeye
parting company after the war has already ended.

nn  Then Hawkeye and B.J. hug. And as Hawkeye looks down from his
chopper, he sees that B.J. has written out a message for him. It’s
the word “Goodbye,” spelled out in stones on the chopper pad.

nn  Unlike in the film, the conflict here in the TV series isn’t


a straightforward conflict against the war, because there are things
about the war that the doctors will miss.

Lecture 19  •  Film versus Television: MASH and M*A*S*H 197


nn  Instead, the TV conflict is a conflict within the world of the war.
In this TV world, war isn’t a single bad thing. It’s two opposites,
good and bad. There are the pointless deaths, the heartbreak, the
human cruelty, and the futility. But there are also the friendships
and the daily triumphs.

nn  Whereas the doctors of MASH the film are in conflict with the world
of war, the characters of M*A*S*H the TV show are windows into
the deeper conflict of the world. Though they all bring unique
viewpoints, the fact that all of the characters of a TV series offer
windows into the same deep conflict means they can always be
swapped out and exchanged.

nn  The role of TV characters as windows into the more enduring


conflict in the story world also means that antagonists work very
differently in TV than in film. In film, the antagonist is the human
face of the world that the hero fights against. In TV, the antagonist
is instead an expression of the same world conflict that beats
inside the heroes’ hearts. And so rather than simply encouraging
negative feelings in the audience, most antagonists will, as the
series progresses, inspire increasing amounts of sympathy.

nn  In MASH the film, the antagonist is Major Burns, an incompetent


and repulsively smug doctor who endangers the lives of his patients
and pompously bullies the other medical staff. Burns meets his end
when he is humiliated by Hawkeye for his private relationship with
the character Hot Lips.

nn  Burns responds to this attack by punching Hawkeye, leading


Hawkeye to humiliate him further: “Frank Burns has gone nuts!”
Burns is shoved in a straitjacket and hauled away. Everything about
this scene is constructed to turn the audience against Burns.

nn  In contrast, in the final episode of M*A*S*H the TV show, the main
antagonist is made an object of sympathy. This antagonist is Major
Charles Winchester, the season six replacement for Frank Burns.

Lecture 19  •  Film versus Television: MASH and M*A*S*H 198


Alan and Robert Alda

nn  In the final episode, after Winchester has tried to teach five Chinese
POWs to play Mozart, he sees them loaded on a truck. Rushing out,
he’s told that the POWs are being collected for a prisoner swap.
Winchester desperately tries to stop the exchange. He’s come so
close to teaching the POWs to play Mozart, giving him a ray of
hope. But Winchester is overruled, and the truck pulls away.

Lecture 19  •  Film versus Television: MASH and M*A*S*H 199


nn  But the Chinese musicians take out their
instruments and play the Mozart exactly the
way that Winchester had been trying to teach
them. So as Winchester watches the musicians
leave, his anguish melts away. And at the same
time, the PA announces the end of the war, and
everyone explodes with joy.

nn  The script makes clear that Winchester’s sense


of happiness is shared by everyone. Instead
of being in conflict with the main characters,
Winchester feels exactly like them.

nn  A few scenes later, Winchester is in the


operating room, trying to save the final victims
of the war, when he comes upon a hopeless
case: a patient missing half his chest. To his
horror, Winchester realizes that the patient is
the Chinese flutist.

nn  In shock, Winchester says, “He wasn’t even


a soldier. He was a musician. What happened
to the other people in the truck with him?” To
which a corpsman replies: “He’s the only one
that made it this far.”

nn  Winchester is shattered by this revelation, and


he staggers back to his tent. He puts on his
record player, listening to a few bars of the
Mozart he taught to the Chinese musicians, and
then grabs the record and smashes it in despair.

nn  Like Major Burns when he’s dragged away in


a straitjacket in the film, Winchester has just
had the limits of his power crushingly exposed.
Yet the audience is feeling with him rather than
smirking at him.

Lecture 19  •  Film versus Television: MASH and M*A*S*H 201


nn  That is the difference between antagonists in film and in TV. In
film, the antagonist is opposed by the main characters. In TV, the
antagonist is one of the main characters, a window into the same
conflict as everyone else. In TV, instead of hating the antagonists,
the audience eventually comes to identify with them, too.

STORY WORLD

nn  This lecture will conclude by turning to the pilot for M*A*S*H to


see how it establishes a conflict in its story world that generates
a bittersweet sense of the entwined good and bad of war.

nn  The pilot begins with a series of vignettes. Hawkeye and Trapper


John drink martinis and play golf in a minefield. Hot Lips and
Frank Burns read the Bible and the U.S. Army manual while they
play footsie in bed. Commander Henry Blake works with surgical
concentration to open a bottle of champagne.

nn  Suddenly, the air rescue siren sounds and the PA blares: “Attention,
all personnel. Report immediately to admitting ward and operating
room.” This concludes the pilot’s two-step recipe for establishing
the conflict of its story world.

nn  You can copy this model for your own pilot: Show little snippets of
both sides of the conflict in your story world, cutting back and forth
between your main heroes and your antagonists. Then, show that
in this world, both your heroes and your antagonists have to work
together, on the same mission, to do the same thing.

CHARACTER

nn  The first character that the script introduces in depth is Hawkeye.


This introduction makes clear that, unlike in the film, Hawkeye is not
in conflict against the world of the war. Instead, he’s a window for
the audience to see into the world and feel with it.

Lecture 19  •  Film versus Television: MASH and M*A*S*H 202


nn  The pilot accomplishes this task by giving Hawkeye a voiceover
where he describes his job to his father. This voiceover serves quite
literally as a first-person window into Hawkeye’s world. He’s honest
about the shortcomings of his job and admits he can sound callous.
But he also sees his work as good and important: It helps save
human lives.

nn  This is another simple technique you can try when writing your next
pilot. After you’ve introduced the big conflict in your story world,
introduce your first main character through a voiceover where they
explore both the good and bad of that conflict. This will generate
a soliloquy that encourages the audience to identify with both that
character and the world of the series as a whole.

Guest star Alex Karras

Lecture 19  •  Film versus Television: MASH and M*A*S*H 203


PLOT

nn  The plot of the pilot is similarly reverse engineered to convey the


experience of the story world’s tragicomic conflict. Its main action
is a scheme that Hawkeye concocts with Trapper John. The scheme
is to get their Korean houseboy, Ho-Jon, the money he needs to go
to college.

nn  To pull off this scheme, the two doctors concoct a plan to host
a debauched party, raffle off a weekend with a nurse, and then rig
the raffle. The plot, in short, is a tale of doing good by doing bad.

ENDING

nn  At the end of the pilot, Hawkeye’s plan seems to be ruined by


a general who tries to send him home immediately. But then
the general witnesses Hawkeye operate and reverses his earlier
decision.

nn  Even though the general seems like a bad guy, the pilot reveals
that he isn’t. Like everyone in the war, the general sees that the
good always comes mixed with the bad, and so he pardons the
doctors’ bad behavior to preserve their good surgical skills.

nn  This moment in the pilot is in direct contrast to the film, where


after Hawkeye performs an unauthorized operation on a child, he’s
charged by the hospital commander for misusing resources and is
forced to blackmail the commander to escape.

nn  The TV pilot breaks sharply with the film by culminating in a moment


where both Hawkeye and his antagonist become faces of the same
world. In doing so, it once again establishes that the TV series will
be about a conflict within that story world. The characters will all
be windows into it.

Lecture 19  •  Film versus Television: MASH and M*A*S*H 204


 EXERCISE

1 Plan the adaptation of one of your favorite movies into


a TV show. Identify the movie’s conflict between character
and story world and translate it into a conflict within just
the story world. Then adapt or create a group of characters
who inhabit that conflicted world and offer a window into it.

2 Write an opening scene for your TV pilot that follows


the model of M*A*S*H. Introduce your main characters,
including your antagonists, in groups of two through
a series of short opening vignettes. And then bring them
altogether in a single place or event that embodies the core
conflict of the world.

 FURTHER VIEWING

MASH (film) (1970)


M*A*S*H (TV show), Season 11, Episode
16, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (1983)

Lecture 19  •  Film versus Television: MASH and M*A*S*H 205


LECTURE 20

WRITING
A TELEVISION PILOT:
GAME OF THRONES

T
he pilot episode of a TV series begins the series, but a good one
also provides the engine that sustains the series for seasons to
come, all the way to the show’s end. To give you a blueprint for
how pilots establish their engines from beginning to end, through plot
and character and tone, this lecture focuses on the pilot for the wildly
successful series Game of Thrones. But that’s not the focus just because
the pilot was a success; at first, it failed, bombing with test audiences
until it was restructured. If you haven’t seen the episode or read the
script, do so before proceeding to avoid spoilers and maximize your
enjoyment of this lecture.
ENDING

nn  The ending is where a pilot opens up to full throttle, establishing


the cognitive effect that’ll be the hallmark of subsequent episodes.
Whenever you want to understand how a particular TV series works,
turn to the final beats of its pilot.

nn  The pilot for Game of Thrones introduces the fantasy realm


of Westeros, a violent place of political machinations and
dynastic struggles based loosely on the War of the Roses of 15th-
century England.

nn  At the end of the pilot, 10-year-old Bran begins to climb a tower in
the northern castle he calls home. Eventually, Bran looks through
a window and sees a man and a woman in a carnal embrace. The
pair is Jaime and Cersei—the queen and her twin brother, in an
incestuously adulterous relationship.

nn  Cersei catches sight of Bran. In a panic, she insists that her brother
do something to bury their dark secret. But Jaime instead asks
Bran his age. “Ten,” Bran replies. And Jaime repeats it: “Ten.”

nn  Jaime turns away from the window, and Bran exhales, relieved to
have escaped. Abruptly, Jaime sighs: “The things I do for love.” He
causally shoves Bran out of the window.

nn  The cognitive effect is of the destruction of innocence. Bran wants


to peer inside the tower’s dark secrets. The knowledge shatters
him, literally. It also shatters the audience’s innocence.

nn  The story engine that drives this experience is a painful contradiction


in the nature of power. Power brings people pleasure, but power
also destroys people. For example, take the king of Westeros, who
admits his royalty-fed vices are destroying him. Power has ruined
the king by giving him everything that he wants.

Lecture 20  •  Writing a  Television Pilot: Game of Thrones 208


nn  In Game of Thrones, knowledge is the utmost power. To know other
people’s secrets is to control them. To know the ways of the world
is to master it. The downside: Knowledge makes people powerful
but also breaks their innocence.

BEGINNING

nn  The pilot opens with three rangers leaving the Wall for the
wilderness beyond. They discover bodies, which strangely
disappear, leaving only a scrap of red cloth. Eventually, a shadowy
creature with blue eyes appears and decapitates two of the rangers
before tossing one of their heads to the survivor.

nn  This opening scene encapsulates in miniature the double


experience of all of Game of Thrones. First, the scene creates
a deepening sense of mystery, channeling the audience’s attention
to the scrap of red cloth. This little clue holds out the promise of
knowledge and the pleasure of having the answers. But as the
monster pounces, the audience goes from one face of power to
the other: from the pleasure to the pain.

nn  Comparing the successful Game of Thrones pilot with the failed


pilot, the failed pilot doesn’t make this double move as effectively.
In the successful pilot, the ranger Will’s first line is: “I’ve never seen
wildlings do a thing like this. I’ve never seen a thing like this, not
ever in my life.” In the failed pilot, Will’s first line is: “We should
start back. They’re all dead.”

nn  The successful pilot immediately builds a sense of dark and


enormous mystery. The failed pilot begins by telling the audience
it’s all wrapped up. So it doesn’t entice us in the same way.

nn  This isn’t the right move for every pilot. But this intriguing seduction
into pain is exactly the right move for Game of Thrones because
it perfectly establishes the core cognitive effect that drives the
whole series. It makes you want to know. And then it makes you
suffer for it.

Lecture 20  •  Writing a  Television Pilot: Game of Thrones 209


CHARACTER

nn  From here, the pilot then introduces a series of characters. They all
get a generous chunk of screen time, and they are all presented as
important. Because pilots introduce a lot of characters, the danger
is that the pilot’s plot can start to feel confusing and overwhelming.

Lecture 20  •  Writing a  Television Pilot: Game of Thrones 210


nn  There are two keys to making these sequential character
introductions. First, each character should be introduced as
a window into some part of the underlying conflict in the story world.
Each character should offer their own different angle on this conflict
while still being reflections of the same conflict in the story world.

nn  Second, the first two main character introductions should establish


characters who are in conflict with each other. In other words, the
first main character should embody more of one side of the story
world conflict, and the second main character should embody
more of the other side. This reinforces the conflict in the story
world and sets in motion a plot that draws the main characters into
relationship with each other.

nn  In Game of Thrones, the first set of characters to be introduced is


the Starks. The general tone is set with Bran. The audience watches
through Bran’s eyes as he witnesses the execution of the surviving
ranger by his father.

nn  For Bran to ascend in the world, he must learn what death looks
like. He forces himself to watch the execution. But in gaining this
knowledge of what death looks like, Bran also discovers the other
less happy side of power: It’s jolting to watch the end of a man’s
life. And so as Bran learns, he simultaneously suffers as part of his
innocence dies.

nn  The world’s conflict spans from an inexperienced curiosity on one


side to an experienced suffering on the other. Bran is clearly on the
side of inexperience; he has only begun to suffer.

nn  The next main characters the audience meets are the Lannister
twins, Cersei and Jaime. I know, they’re actually two characters.
In the pilot, the Lannister twins are introduced as they watch the
funeral procession of the king’s former right-hand man.

Lecture 20  •  Writing a  Television Pilot: Game of Thrones 211


nn  This prompts Cersei to fret that the dead man
“told someone” before he died. Cersei’s brother
responds: “If he told the king, both our heads
would be skewered on the city gates by now.”

nn  The Lannisters have knowledge, which is


power—but also the thing that threatens to kill
them. And by introducing the Lannisters as the
keepers of a dark secret, the pilot establishes
a conflict between the Lannisters and the
Starks that will fuel the show’s engine.

PLOT

nn  The plot, as we’ve just seen, is driven by


a conflict between the Starks’ drive to know and
the Lannisters’ efforts to conceal. To heighten
this, the overall goal of the plot is to insert Ned
Stark in the heart of the king’s palace.

nn  The pilot does this by getting rid of the king’s


right-hand man. This gives the king an excuse
to invite Ned Stark to become the new right
hand, where he’ll be immersed in the dark
shadows of the court.

nn  The next step of the plot is for the king to make


his formal request by visiting Ned. This brings
the Lannisters into the Starks’ home, so it gives
the audience a taste of the bigger conflict
that will come when the Starks get into the
Lannisters’ lair.

213
nn  And the final big step of the plot comes just before Ned Stark
leaves to journey to the palace. Here, the script includes a scene
where Ned’s wife reads a note from her sister, informing Ned that
the king’s right-hand man “was murdered. By the Lannisters.” The
scene is crucial because it ramps up the conflict between the Starks
and the Lannisters by giving Ned a reason to pry into Cersei and
Jamie’s affairs.

Lecture 20  •  Writing a  Television Pilot: Game of Thrones 214


nn  Those are the big strokes of the main storyline. But there is one
other key part of the plot: scenes set over the sea in Essos. These
scenes are by far the most shocking and bizarre ones in the pilot. In
fact, they caused the original pilot to bomb.

nn  That’s because in the original pilot, these scenes were introduced


right after the initial scenes with the Starks. This followed the
structure of the show’s source novel, but gave the impression of
another random set of characters in another random place, causing
test audiences to lose interest and tune out.

nn  In the later, successful pilot, the writers departed from the structure
of the novel and delayed the introduction of Essos. They waited
until after they had established conflict between the Starks and
the Lannisters and after the king had asked Ned Stark back to
his palace.

nn  The big lesson here is that the world of a TV show is not its
geographical places. It’s the core conflict. To establish the story
world, don’t rush into showing all of its physical locales. Instead,
focus on establishing the deeper world-conflict by showing two
main characters in opposition.

TONE

nn  The tone of Game of Thrones is visually enticing, filled with


mysterious and intriguing objects like dragon’s eggs and nude
bodies wreathed in shadow. It’s also filled with the constant patter
of secrets. An example is when Ned remarks: “I don’t fight in
tournaments because when I fight a man for real, I don’t want him
to know what I can do.”

nn  The show’s tone is engineered to draw the viewers into the trap of
curiosity, whispering of new things for them to see.

Lecture 20  •  Writing a  Television Pilot: Game of Thrones 215


SCENES

nn  An important comparison can be drawn between the scenes where


the failed pilot and the successful pilot introduce the popular
character Tyrion Lannister. The failed pilot introduces Tyrion as he
receives, in the actual words of the script, “oral pleasure” from “a
redheaded whore.” The failed pilot creates absolutely no sense of
mystery. It’s unsubtle, frank, and crass.

nn  The successful pilot instead introduces Tyrion through a little scene


where Catelyn Stark lays out candles for his bedroom because
she’s heard he likes to read all night. The character Luwin retorts
that he’s heard that Tyrion drinks all night.

nn  A surprised Catelyn replies that even if Tyrion does drink all night,
surely Tyrion couldn’t possibly consume the eight barrels of ale that
Luwin has just brought up from the cellars.

nn  This revised scene works because it immediately establishes the


core engine of the pilot: a sense of dark secrets. Who is Tyrion? Is
he a reader or a drinker?

nn  When the audience does meet Tyrion and the redhead in the
successful pilot, Tyrion yells for the door to be closed, preserving
a sense that something remains hidden. And finally, the pilot drives
home Tyrion’s character in a moment when Tyrion declares to Jon
Snow: “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what
you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor. Then it
can never be used to hurt you.”

nn  Here again is the core conflict of the world. Tyrion has gained
knowledge through suffering. He wishes that the world were
otherwise. He has been hurt by its cruelty. But he also knows he
has to make the best of the nightmare he’s been born into.

Lecture 20  •  Writing a  Television Pilot: Game of Thrones 216


nn  The failed pilot treated Tyrion more like the antagonist of a film,
making him more unlikeable and direct. The successful pilot made
Tyrion a reflection of its engine, making him mysterious, conflicted,
and sympathetic.

 EXERCISE

1 Create your pilot’s engine. Invent a deep conflict that’s


bigger than any one person, a conflict that inheres inside
a story world.

2 Write a short scene that brings together two characters


on opposite sides of this conflict. This should show both
sides of the story world and get the big first season
plotline started.

 FURTHER VIEWING

Game of Thrones, Season 1, Episode 1,


“Winter Is Coming” (2011)

 FURTHER READING

A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin

Lecture 20  •  Writing a  Television Pilot: Game of Thrones 217


LECTURE 21

THE SITCOM: THE


SIMPSONS

T
o focus on sitcom writing, this lecture takes a look at The
Simpsons. In addition to being the most successful sitcom ever,
The Simpsons is also really clever. It has won 32 Emmys, which is
more than Seinfeld or The Mary Tyler Moore Show or even Cheers. This
lecture examines a popular episode from the show’s prime in season
four. That episode is “Duffless,” where Homer tries to give up alcohol
and Lisa tries to win the science fair. If you haven’t seen it yet or read
the script, check them out before proceeding.
ENDING

nn  “Duffless” ends when Homer leaves his drinking buddies to go on


a date with Marge. And as Homer rides off into the sunset, with
Marge on the handlebars of his bicycle, he rings the bike’s bell
and chortles. This ending gives an example of the two married
cognitive experiences of modern sitcom episodes.

nn  The first is the experience of togetherness: Homer and Marge are


united again. The second is the experience of personal kookiness:
Homer can’t pedal off into his happily-ever-after without indulging
in a little private joke. He has to ring the bell and giggle, even
though his wife doesn’t find it funny at all.

nn  These two opposite feelings of comic individuality and sentimental


togetherness point toward the engine that makes The Simpsons
and virtually every other modern sitcom go.

ENGINE

nn  The sitcom engine is the conflict between the individual and the
society. Individual is a literal term when it comes to sitcoms: Every
character is a one-of-a-kind individual, filled with rogue desires
and dreams.

nn  Sitcoms generate enormous variety by tweaking the specific


characteristics of the individual and the social aspects of the show.
In Frasier, the tweak is that the individuals are highly neurotic
psychiatrists. In Cheers, the tweak is that the society is a bar where
everyone is trying to escape the other society outside.

nn  In other words, there are two basic ways to invent your own original
sitcom. The first is to focus on a unique subculture of individuals,
like Broad City does with female college grads in New York City.
The second is to focus on a unique kind of social togetherness,
like Modern Family does with post-divorce American families, or
Seinfeld does with the special bond between misanthropes.

Lecture 21  •  The Sitcom: The Simpsons 220


nn  Since the engine of sitcoms is the running conflict between the
individual and the society, sitcoms never imply that one is absolutely
better than the other. If they did, that would kill the engine. Instead,
sitcom episodes go back and forth between mocking the individual
from the perspective of the society and mocking the society from
the perspective of the individual.

nn  In “Duffless,” one of the many mocks of individuals occurs when


Police Chief Wiggum terrifies Marge by telling her that Homer is
DOA, only to then chuckle and say: “Oh, I always mix up DOA with
DWI.” In this case, the police chief is the menace to society.

nn  But there are also many, many moments where the society is the
menace to the individual. An example is when all the students at
Lisa’s school hoot and cheer when the tomato that would end world
hunger is instead used as a projectile to slime the school principal.

OPENING SCENE OF “DUFFLESS”

nn  “Duffless” opens on a dream. It’s Bart’s dream, and in it, he invents


something called a Go-Go Ray, which makes all the teachers
dance. This is the quintessential sitcom opener. Not every sitcom
should open with a literal dream, but the starting point for most
sitcom episodes is a figurative dream where one or more characters
is caught in their own private world.

nn  That’s why after Bart physically wakes up, the episode goes on to
show the other members of Bart’s family as they remain psychically
marooned in their own waking dreams. When Homer is asked to
help Lisa on her science fair project, he responds: “Yeah. Syrup is
better than jelly.”

nn  Meanwhile, Lisa announces that she’s grown a futuristic tomato by


fertilizing it with anabolic steroids. This is another kind of dream.
In Lisa’s daydream, a third-world family has erected a shrine
to her, worshipping her as their tomato savior. The real point of
Lisa’s invention isn’t so much to improve other people’s lives as to
improve her own celebrity.

Lecture 21  •  The Sitcom: The Simpsons 221


nn  The two dreams that the episode introduces in this beginning scene
are the ones that will drive the remaining plot. Homer’s dreamy
immersion in his own gut appetites brings him into opposition
with Marge, creating the conflict that will lead to his extravagant
efforts to give up beer. Lisa’s dream of scientific glory will lead to
her equally extravagant efforts to turn Bart into her lab rat.

CHARACTER

nn  In the world of sitcoms, a clown is any character locked


within their own private worldview—that is, any character
who mistakes their dreams for reality. There are
many different ways to create a sitcom clown.
One is to give the clown an uncontrollably
strong emotion or passion.

nn  Another technique for clown


making is to make the clown
a professional stereotype. For
example, all the soldier-clowns
in ancient comedies are cowards,
while all the courtesan-clowns are crafty. You
can see vestiges of this ancient technique in The
Simpsons’ lazy cops, its ineffectually pompous
school principal, and its glibly dishonest lawyer.

nn  You can also make the weirdness of your clowns more


deeply personal. In this episode of The Simpsons,
Chief Wiggum makes home videos of himself in
a splash pool. Lisa decides that the key food for
ending world hunger is a tomato. Bart teaches
a hamster to fly. This is a step beyond stereotypes into
the deeply idiosyncratic strangeness of individual minds.

Lecture 21  •  The Sitcom: The Simpsons 222


nn  However you choose to make your clowns, remember this golden
rule: Make your clowns harmlessly eccentric, their oddness a danger
only to themselves. The comedy in a sitcom comes from harmlessly
eccentric clown characters. It doesn’t come from writing jokes.

nn  Instead of writing jokes, create a character with a slightly


offbeat mind. Then imagine what that atypical character
would typically do. Whatever it is will automatically be
funny, unless it mortally threatens your audience.
In that case, dial it back.

nn  To create your first


clown character, it
can help to start
with some of your
own peculiarities. Or
study the people
around you for their
deep eccentricities.
As much as you can, try
to keep the weirdness of your clowns
simple, because all the zany behavior of
each sitcom character can always be traced
back to its own single psychological root.
Homer is a glutton. Lisa is superior. Bart
is attention-seeking. Marge is anxious.

nn  The absolute minimum for a sitcom


is two main clowns, and most
sitcoms have three or four. Often
they can have five or six. Sitcoms
are like clown cars: There’s always
room for one more.

Lecture 21  •  The Sitcom: The Simpsons 223


PLOT

nn  Sitcom plots are set in motion by a problem that


characters create for themselves. And clowns
are always creating problems for themselves.
In the case of “Duffless,” two of the characters
create problems for themselves, resulting in an
A-plot and a B-plot.

nn  In the A-plot, Homer’s lust for alcohol gets him


locked up for drunk driving, bringing him in
conflict with Marge. In the B-plot, Lisa’s desire
to be praised for her intelligence leads her on
a quest to win the school science fair, bringing
her in conflict with Bart.

nn  The key here is that in both plots, the clowns’


normal psychological drives lead them to create
a problem that then puts them in conflict with
another character. That conflict with another
character then leads to an escalation.

nn  In the case of Homer, the escalation is his


increasingly desperate attempts to avoid
alcohol. He tries to distract himself at the
science fair. He tries to distract himself with
TV. He tries to distract himself at a Tupperware
party. On each of these occasions, his inner
struggle becomes more and more absurdly
heightened, until he’s fantasizing about
murdering everyone at the Tupperware party
for one drop of beer.

nn  In the case of Lisa, she comes up with


increasingly sophisticated ways to manipulate
Bart, placing treats just out of his reach,
electrocuting cupcakes, and finally outsmarting
Bart and his villain act.

225
nn  Toward the end of the episode, the A and B plots intersect when
Homer goes to the science fair. In the episode’s final beats, each
of the plots resolves itself. Lisa loses the science fair, crushing her
dreams of glory. And Homer realizes that he actually likes spending
time with Marge, so he finds a painless way to be sober.

nn  At the end, the important thing is that the characters finally stop
making their self-inflicted problem worse. Maybe they give up.
Maybe the world crushes them. Maybe the other characters rescue
them. It’s up to you and what you want your audience to feel.

nn  Not all sitcoms have two plots, but most tend to. That’s partly
because it’s hard to stretch a single plotline out for an entire
episode. And having two plots also adds to the comic richness of
the world by involving more characters and more weird problems.
Some even have a third plot.

TONE

nn  There are two simple ways to generate a comic tone. First, focus
on everyday people and objects. Second, describe the world in
multiple voices. The Simpsons shows how both of these are done.

nn  First, everything in the episode is drawn from daily life. The


audience sees the insides of schools, workplaces, bars, churches,
and living rooms. Almost all sitcoms stick to these everyday places,
and even sitcoms that go a little further afield create their own
sense of regular life by returning to the same communal locations
again and again.

nn  Second, each character in the episode has his or her own voice. The
Simpsons is a smorgasbord of different dialects. Bart says things
like “Ay Carumba” and “Eat my shorts.” Lisa says things like: “The
hamster has learned a valuable lesson—beware the hand of man.”

nn  When you’re writing your first sitcom, set it somewhere ordinary. And
give each of your clowns a little of their own extraordinary dialect.

Lecture 21  •  The Sitcom: The Simpsons 226


SCENES

nn  A crisp example of The Simpson’s sitcom blueprint is the scene


where Homer attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The
meeting begins with Ned Flanders shuddering in horror at the time
he had a blackberry schnapps. Then, the world’s oldest-looking
man confesses that drinking has ruined his life. He is, in fact, only 31.

nn  Then Homer grouchily informs everyone that he’s there because


a judge made him come. Which leads the Reverend to reach out
sympathetically: “Homer, with our help, you’ll never touch a beer
again.” This prompts Homer to shriek and jump out the window.

nn  So this scene offers an elegant mini-blueprint of the endless


conflict between the individual and the social that drives every
beat of every sitcom. First comes a sequence of totally eccentric
characters, each driven by their own weird and distinct psychology
to make a problem for themselves. But then they all come together
in the shared moment of the AA confession, so that for an instant,
the individual and the social merge. In the final beat, Homer’s
rogue psychology busts it all apart.

 EXERCISE

1 Watch an episode of your favorite sitcom. Identify its


engine. Then, add one tweak of your own, modifying either
the individual clowns or their greater social bond.

2 Take one of your new clowns and imagine the kind of


problem they’d create for themselves. Then imagine
how the problem escalates. And finally, imagine how it
goes away.

 FURTHER VIEWING

The Simpsons, Season 4, Episode 16, “Duffless” (1993)

Lecture 21  •  The Sitcom: The Simpsons 227


LECTURE 22

THE PROCEDURAL: CSI

E
very sitcom begins with a problem that the main character creates.
That problem gets worse and worse, leading to more disasters
and complications, until at the end, the character capitulates
and things go back to normal. In the procedural genre, it’s the inverse.
Every episode begins with a problem that the main character sets out
to solve. That problem is unraveled piece by piece through a series of
breakthroughs and discoveries, until at the end, the character triumphs
and things go back to normal. To expand that basic engine into a more
detailed blueprint, this lecture reverse engineers the pilot episode of
the successful and influential procedural CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The show has a  two-part pilot episode, which was split into the first
two episodes of season one, titled “Pilot” and “Cool Change.” For
the purposes of this lecture, both “Pilot” and “Cool Change” will be
referred to together as the pilot. The end of the pilot means the end of
“Cool Change.” If you haven’t seen the two-part pilot for CSI or read the
scripts, take the time to check them out.
ENDING

nn  The pilot to CSI has a two-part ending. In the first part of the
ending, Gil Grissom, the lead crime scene investigator, solves
a casino crime. In the second part, the CSI team forgives a member
of their unit for making a human mistake.

nn  Each part of the ending has its own cognitive effect, which together
make up the total experience of CSI. Grissom wraps this case in
spectacular fashion: He turns back time to witness a murder as it
actually happened, and he sees something that he wasn’t there to
see. The point is that Grissom seems like a god. That’s the first half
of CSI’s cognitive effect: a feeling of euphoric omniscience when
the audience discovers solution to the crime.

nn  The second half of the pilot’s cognitive effect is less intoxicating.


In the final beats, CSI member Warrick Brown tries to resign,
confessing to Grissom that he has a gambling addiction that
inadvertently led to a trainee agent’s death. But Grissom refuses
to accept Brown’s resignation, insisting that if Brown messed up, so
did every member of his unit. “We’re all culpable in this,” Grissom
says. Handing Brown back his badge, Grissom welcomes him back
onto the team.

nn  But instead of ending with a tidy sitcom reconciliation, the pilot for
CSI carries on for one more beat. And in that beat, unlike at the end
of The Simpsons or Friends, the characters don’t go home together.
Instead, each of them goes home on their own. This leaves Brown
in the parking lot, alone.

nn  This is a story world where people try to reform and try to forgive
and forget. But as much as the characters of CSI all do their best, at
the end of the day, people still end up alone. This is the other face
of CSI: not the solving of problems but the making of problems.

Lecture 22  •  The Procedural: CSI 230


ENGINE

nn  The show’s dual cognitive effect points to the special engine of CSI.
The engine of every procedural is broadly the same: The conflict is
between the forces that generate the problem and the procedures
that solve it.

nn  But a vast number of different procedural shows have been built


out of this basic engine by modifying one side of the conflict or the
other. In the case of CSI, the innovation is to make the problem the
fallenness of human nature and to make the procedure the god’s
eye of science. The problem is sin city. And the solution is forensic
omniscience.

nn  The pilot’s first full-length crime is introduced at the beginning of


its second half. Things begin when a lucky casino-goer wins $40
million and is led to the presidential suite with his girlfriend. Thrilled
to be rich, his girlfriend steps out onto the balcony—at which point
the big winner tells her: “Come on, I’m a millionaire now. Why
would I want to waste any more time with you?”

nn  Here’s the ugly side of Las Vegas: Money changes everything.


And then the ugliness gets uglier. The man’s girlfriend murders
him in revenge. And when she’s asked later whether she feels any
remorse, she says she doesn’t. The pilot doesn’t show hardened
criminals. It shows ordinary people who come to Vegas and have
their subterranean desires exposed, for example, by a $40 million
payout.

nn  Against the problem of human nature, the pilot then pits the other
half of its engine: the problem-solving procedure of the scientific
method. Grissom’s forensic method is to reverse engineer history
through an analysis of the physical data that remains. Grissom
doesn’t just speculate about the past. He can see it exactly.

Lecture 22  •  The Procedural: CSI 231


nn  Grissom’s method takes forensic science to a level far beyond
procedurals like Dragnet or Sherlock Holmes. In those earlier
procedurals, the detectives always took the time to interview
witnesses and people of interest. But according to Grissom, that
was a mistake. It introduced a human fallibility into science.

Lecture 22  •  The Procedural: CSI 232


nn  The procedures of the show’s CSI unit leave the imperfect
memories and self-interested distortions of witnesses behind. They
achieve Grissom’s god’s eye by freeing themselves entirely from
human nature. With this innovation in crime solving, CSI cleanly
establishes its core conflict. On one side is human nature and
the errors that it breeds. On the other is science and the divine
omniscience it permits.

CHARACTER

nn  The audience first meets Grissom when he’s deducing a victim’s


time of death by examining the size of a maggot, after which
Grissom goes back to his office to break in a new recruit. The
recruit confesses to feeling lightheaded, so Grissom reaches into
his refrigerator and grabs a jar of bugs. He then hands a bug to the
recruit, promising that it will boost her blood sugar and take away
her lightheadedness. And to prove his point, Grissom pops a bug
in his own mouth and chews.

nn  With this scene, Grissom establishes that his only god is science.
Sure, your stomach might turn at the thought of eating a bug. But
that’s the problem with human nature: It’s irrational. It doesn’t
know that bugs are good for its blood sugar. Grissom is firmly on
one side of the show’s central conflict. He’s on the side of science.

nn  The next main character introduced by the CSI Pilot is Brown. He’s
on the opposite side of the show’s central conflict from Grissom,
creating a clash between the two characters. Where Grissom is
cool and scientifically calculating, Brown is so hot for his promotion
that he gets entangled with a corrupt judge. Brown shows human
nature, with all its faults and follies. The other CSI personnel all fall
somewhere in between Brown and Grissom.

Lecture 22  •  The Procedural: CSI 233


PLOT

nn  The way to plot a procedural is to reverse


engineer it, starting with the answer to
a problem, and then building back the steps
you need to get there. So in the case of
a typical episode of CSI, the writers imagine
an ingenious crime and then build back all
the evidence needed to solve it, planting that
evidence in earlier scenes.

nn  To take an example from the pilot, one crime


involves female prostitutes putting a knockout
drug on their nipples, allowing them to
incapacitate and rob their unsuspecting male
clients. Different scenes show an unconscious
male victim with discoloration on his mouth,
an unconscious female victim with no
discoloration on her mouth, and a third scene
where doctors examine the female victim
and discover discoloration on her nipples.
She’s a perpetrator—not the victim—and she
accidentally knocked herself out.

nn  This isn’t the only kind of reverse engineering


that CSI employs. If it was all just clues and
fitting them together, the show would get
predictable. The writers also reverse engineer
red herrings and misdirections and other
story delays. An example of a delay is to plant
inconclusive evidence, like an ineffective mouth
swab that doesn’t yield the data that the
investigators need.

nn  The process of creating the plot for each


episode is simply to imagine an ingenious
crime or medical mystery or some other
problem. Then, reverse engineer the evidence,
dispensing it drip by drip. Also reverse engineer

235
delays and complications as needed. If one problem isn’t enough
to keep the plot interesting, imagine one or two more, so that you
have multiple plotlines going at once.

TONE

nn  In CSI, the tone is reverse engineered to heighten the show’s


cognitive mix of divine euphoria and human emptiness. The
tone heightens the first half of this cognitive effect, the divine
euphoria, by playing up the extraordinary nature of its crime-
solving procedures. These procedures are portrayed as colorful,
dazzling, even gorgeous. They offer a holy glimpse into the hidden
mystery of things, and CSI has won multiple Emmys for its beautiful
special effects.

nn  The tone of CSI heightens the second half of the show’s cognitive
effect, human emptiness, though its dark and grimy crime scenes.
The show is set at night, allowing shadows to permeate everything,
making the world feel lonely and grim.

SCENE

nn  Next, this lecture turns to a scene that captures the whole engine
of CSI in miniature. In this scene, Grissom is brooding over the
physical evidence retrieved from the casino. That evidence doesn’t
add up. The casino security has no record of the electronic lock to
the victim’s room being triggered, so the evidence suggests that
the victim left his room and died elsewhere.

nn  But Grissom has found carpet fibers from the room in the victim’s
watchband, so that evidence suggests that the victim was in fact
killed in the room and dragged across the floor. The evidence
seems to point in two directions at once.

Lecture 22  •  The Procedural: CSI 236


nn  But then Grissom has a realization that resolves the apparent
conflict in the evidence: There must be a tiny bug in the casino’s
security system. Specifically, if a key is inserted in a door lock when
the door is open, then left in the lock while the door is closed, and
then later removed after the door is reopened, the security system
must fail to record the door opening the second time.

nn  This is an incredibly complicated sequence of events to intuit,


and Grissom has no special knowledge of casino doors. But the
evidence tells him it must be true, and when he conducts a little
experiment with the casino staff, they confirm it.

nn  With this scene, the pilot illustrates both the method and the
miracle of the CSI procedure. By following science exactly, it does
what no mortal eye can do and sees into tomorrow.

 EXERCISE

1 Watch an episode of your favorite procedural. Identify its


engine. Then, add one tweak of your own, modifying either
the problem or the problem solving.

2 Create two characters to act as windows into your new


engine: one who’s more a problem solver, the other who’s
more a problem.

 FURTHER VIEWING

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Season 1, Episodes 1 and


2, “Pilot” and “Cool Change” (2000)

Lecture 22  •  The Procedural: CSI 237


LECTURE 23

THE PRIME-TIME
SOAP: GREY’S ANATOMY

S
oap operas can help people work through emotions they don’t
want to feel as much. Or they can help people intensify feelings
they see as important. Or they can just help people feel more
comfortable and happy, offering respite from a modern world that’s
often too busy to acknowledge how people feel. This lecture looks at
how you can launch your own soap opera by studying the pilot episode
of the most popular prime-time soap of the past decade: ABC’s Grey’s
Anatomy. If you haven’t had a chance to watch or read the pilot for
Gray’s Anatomy, enjoy before proceeding.

238 239
ENDING

nn  In the final scene of Grey’s Anatomy’s pilot, Meredith visits her
mom in a nursing home to tell her that she’s decided not to sell the
house. “It’s home, you know?” To which her mom blankly responds:
“Are you the doctor?”

nn  With this sharp twist, the scene reveals that Meredith’s mother
has Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t know her own child. This ending is
a heartbreaker. And it breaks your heart in a very specific way: It
makes you feel what it is to have a mother and not have a mother all
at the same time. It’s a feeling of being home and being a stranger
at the same time.

nn  In the case of Grey’s Anatomy, the story engine is the conflict
between a person’s desire to belong and their anxiety that they
don’t. Everyone in the pilot of Gray’s Anatomy is constantly striving
to be accepted. Yet no one ever quite manages to feel that they
belong. They feel constantly like strangers in their own homes.

OPENING

nn  The pilot establishes that conflict on its opening page. It begins


with a voiceover in which Meredith remarks: “The game. They say
either a person has what it takes to play, or they don’t. My mother
was one of the greats. Me, on the other hand…”

nn  This voiceover is a mini-blueprint for Grey’s Anatomy’s whole


engine. There’s a game that people were born to play. Their
parents are in the game’s hall of fame, yet people feel like they
don’t even belong on the field.

nn  The pilot’s following scene dramatizes this conflict between


belonging and not belonging in a starkly intimate way. Meredith
wakes up in her bed, naked. There’s a man next to her. He’s
naked, too, but he doesn’t know her name. Meredith feels
instantly humiliated.

Lecture 23  •  The Prime-Time Soap: Grey’s Anatomy 240


nn  The naked man is pleasant. He’s sympathetic about Meredith’s
mother. But to Meredith, it all feels like an illusion. She asks him to
leave, and then she quickly flees herself.

nn  The engine for Gray’s Anatomy is a conflict in the heart. If you want
to create your own soap, try coming up with your own original spin
on a conflict inside the heart.

CHARACTER

nn  Grey’s main characters are dispersed across the full spectrum of the
story world’s root conflict, some more on one side of the conflict,
some more on the other. Like procedurals and serial dramas, the
pilot emphasizes its core conflict by opening on a character who’s
on one extreme of the conflict and then immediately introducing
a character on the other extreme.

nn  The first character is Meredith, who feels strongly on the side of


not belonging. Right after Meredith’s introduction, the pilot cuts
to a speech delivered in the heart of the hospital by Dr. Richard
Webber, the chief of surgery.

nn  Webber is presented as the ultimate insider. He belongs about


as much as anyone can belong. And his speech to new interns
reinforces the point: “Each of you comes here hopeful. Wanting in
on the game. […] But eight of you will switch to an easier specialty.
Five of you will crack under the pressure. Two of you will be asked
to leave.” With this, Webber instantly makes the interns feel like
imposters.

nn  Everyone else in the episode falls somewhere on the spectrum


between Meredith and Webber. For example, the female interns
feel superior to the ex-model Izzie. And a male intern, George, is
mocked by the other interns, pitied by the doctors, and picked as
a scapegoat by Burke.

Lecture 23  •  The Prime-Time Soap: Grey’s Anatomy 241


PLOT

nn  Every plot line is about a character striving to


fit in with some group but, in the end, failing
to make it completely. One of the most
spectacular instances of these plotlines is
George’s interaction with a worried family
whose father is going to have heart surgery.
George bonds with the family by promising that
their father will make it through surgery alive.

nn  With this beat, the script establishes that


George finally feels like he belongs. Then, the
plot rips this feeling of belonging away by
showing the father flatlining in surgery. This
forces George to inform the family that he’s
dead. Their response: “Thank you. Please … go
away.” George is back on the outside; he was
part of the family, and now he isn’t anymore.

nn  The point here is that the purpose of a soap


is to keep returning to the same emotional
conflict over and over. To reverse engineer
those returns, take each of your characters
and create little challenges for them that hold
out the promise of resolving the conflict. Then,
interrupt your characters’ moments of triumph
with a sharp plot twist that plunges them back
into their original dilemma so that the show’s
engine goes on.

nn  To give yourself a little more plot to work with,


you can also bake in one of the procedural
elements discussed in the lecture on CSI,
like the pilot for Grey’s Anatomy does by
introducing the need to solve difficult hospital

243
mysteries. Note: For a soap to be a soap and not a procedural, the
soap engine always needs to govern the action of the procedural
element.

nn  Here’s how it works in the pilot of Gray’s Anatomy: Derek kicks off
the problem solving by asking the interns for help. He has a patient
who is a “mystery.” Her labs are clean, her scans are pure, but she’s
having life-threatening seizures.

nn  Derek tells the interns: “I need you to play detective, I need you
to find out why [she’s] having seizures.” Over the episode, the
detective-playing interns go at it, trying to crack the case. But
in the end, the solution is not achieved through some rigorous,
scientific method, like in CSI or House. Instead, the solution comes
from an emotional intuition.

nn  Meredith and Cristina approach Derek in the elevator and tell him
that they have a hunch. Derek responds by pointing out that their
hunch is wildly unlikely. But the doctors do a scan, and to Derek’s
surprise, the hunch is correct. Emotion is the logic of the world
of Grey’s.

TONE

nn  The tone of soap operas is always sentimental. Everything in the


world is portrayed from the perspective of how the characters feel
about it. In Grey’s Anatomy, the pilot’s most powerful technique for
creating this sentimental tone is Meredith’s voiceover.

nn  In Meredith’s opening soliloquy, she expresses her conflict


between wanting to play the game and feeling like she can’t. The
same voiceover technique injects sympathy into the final beats
of the pilot. Here, Meredith says: “The other interns are all good
people, you’d like them. I think. I don’t know. Maybe. I like them.”
Her unsure tone shows that Meredith is torn.

Lecture 23  •  The Prime-Time Soap: Grey’s Anatomy 244


nn  If you’re writing a soap, there’s no better way to build a sentimental
tone than through voiceovers like this. Don’t use voiceover just
to express what your characters think. Use it to express the deep
emotional conflict in your characters’ hearts.

Lecture 23  •  The Prime-Time Soap: Grey’s Anatomy 245


SCENE

nn  One particular scene captures the whole engine of Grey’s Anatomy


at work. The scene is right at the end of the pilot, when Dr. Webber
humiliates Alex for failing to diagnose a patient. After Alex and all
the other interns stammer helplessly in response to Dr. Webber’s
questions, Meredith steps in and nails the diagnosis. Webber reacts
by telling Alex: “I want you off the case.” Then he tells Meredith:
“Welcome to the gang.”

nn  This is an enormously satisfying scene because it’s a prime instance


of poetic justice. The script has repeatedly marked Alex out as
a bad guy—he’s condescending to nurses and doesn’t care about
his patients. When Alex gets his comeuppance, the audience
loves it.

nn  Morevoer, the scene also fuels the specific engine that makes
Grey’s Anatomy its own special soap. First of all, this scene reveals
that in the story world of this soap, belonging always has to be
paired with a feeling of not belonging. Meredith only becomes
part of “the gang” when Alex is kicked off the case. Otherwise, if it
was possible for all the characters to belong at once, the conflict in
the story world would weaken and the show’s engine would sputter.

nn  Second, this scene brilliantly sets up the pilot’s closing twist—the


reveal that Meredith’s mother has Alzheimer’s. When Webber
welcomes Meredith into the gang, this is really just to set Meredith
up for the emotional reverse of the final scene, where she ends up
feeling like a stranger to her own mother.

nn  This story beat with Dr. Webber is classic reverse engineering. To


make the final scene of not belonging really hurt, the script builds
back this scene where, for a moment, the character finally feels
she fits in. It has Meredith drop her guard before the last punch
comes in.

Lecture 23  •  The Prime-Time Soap: Grey’s Anatomy 246


 EXERCISES
1 Watch an episode of your favorite soap. Identify its engine.
And then tweak it slightly, modifying the deep conflict in
the heart.

2 Create two characters to act as windows into your new


engine. The first should be on one side of the conflict and
the second should be on the opposite. Then, write an
opening scene where the audience meets the first character
and a second scene where the two characters collide.

 FURTHER VIEWING

Grey’s Anatomy, Season 1, Episode 1,


“A Hard Day’s Night” (2005)

Lecture 23  •  The Prime-Time Soap: Grey’s Anatomy 247


LECTURE 24

 BECOMING
A SCREENWRITER

T
his final lecture asks you to choose where you want the story of
this course to end. By learning how scripts work throughout this
course, you’ve been learning how narrative works. And there’s
almost no end to the things that you can do with narrative. There’s no
better way to enlarge your own narrative skills than by practicing the
three goals of this course, which were to help you appreciate more
films and TV, tell better stories, and write your own scripts.

248
APPRECIATING TV AND FILM

nn  With a TV show, if you can appreciate the pilot, you can appreciate
any episode. And the core conflict of the pilot should be there in
the opening scene. Rewatch that scene to find it. If it’s a procedural,
what’s the problem and what’s the problem solver? If it’s a soap,
what’s the core emotional struggle?

nn  Once you’ve found the conflict, try to imagine feeling it in your own
life. And watch the show, honing in on that feeling of conflict until
the story takes you away.

nn  You can do the same basic thing with films. Watch the first few
minutes carefully to identify the core conflict between the character
and their story world. If you can’t find it, rewatch the first two
scenes. It’s there the vast majority of the time.

nn  Or you can ask the person you’re watching the film with: What’s the
character fighting against? What are they most afraid of happening?
Then ask yourself: Have I ever had a similar fear? If you can feel that
fear, you can feel for the character and their conflict. Then you’ll be
in, and the story will start to flow.

EFFECTIVE STORYTELLING

nn  There isn’t one right way to tell stories. Everyone has their own
storytelling style, and you don’t want to lose that. But you can
improve your stories in the same organic way that you can improve
a script, simply by reverse engineering.

nn  If you have a particular story that’s not working quite right, think
about what you want that story to do. Then think about another
story you’ve got that achieves that intended effect and ask yourself:
What story beat or narrative twist or other plot structure does my
effective story have that my less effective story doesn’t?

Lecture 24  •  Becoming a  Screenwriter 250


nn  For example, you might notice that your best stories begin with
you making a little self-deprecating remark about yourself, or that
your best stories have a little ironic twist at the end, or that your
best stories have a logic of the heart to them. That’s one of your
distinctive personal ingredients for good stories, so import it into
any of your stories that isn’t working so well.

nn  If you don’t already have a strong, personal storytelling style, or


you want to branch out and enrich your narrative repertoire, don’t
worry. All you have to do is identify a story that that has a cognitive
effect you want to replicate, then reverse engineer it and borrow its
hidden recipe.

nn  If you want to charm like The Princess Bride, practice telling your
stories with a light irony. If you want to create wonder like Star
Wars, start with an ordinary thing that suddenly offers a glimpse of
a much bigger something beyond.

Lecture 24  •  Becoming a  Screenwriter 251


nn  And if your stories still aren’t working quite right, there are two
simple scriptwriting tricks you can use to troubleshoot. First, the
one thing that almost all good scripts do is generate suspense,
which they do by setting the stage with a conflict between a person
and their world.

nn  The second broad scriptwriting trick for troubleshooting your


stories is to enrich them with a deeper human interest so that your
audience cares more about what happens to the characters. To
do this, remember that the secret recipe for empathy is to reveal
a character’s fears. For example, when you tell stories about
yourself, go ahead and let the audience see your vulnerabilities
and anxieties.

SCRIPTWRITING

nn  The better you can appreciate films and tell stories, the better
you can write a script. Always work to develop those two skills. Be
a dedicated student of the scripts and stories you admire and tell
stories at every opportunity.

nn  As for writing itself: If you like one or more of the blueprints covered
in this course, that’s great. You can steal them. But if you don’t like
any of the blueprints, don’t worry. Since the purpose of this course
isn’t to force you to stick to any single plot structure, the important
thing is not the blueprints themselves.

nn  The important thing is the method for making these blueprints.


Reverse engineering can guide you to whatever blueprint you need
to create your next script. Start by getting a copy of a script you
admire and identifying the cognitive effect of the script’s ending,
as precisely as you can, using any language to describe it that
works for you. Then go through the script, isolating the different
story elements that generate this cognitive effect.

Lecture 24  •  Becoming a  Screenwriter 252


nn  If it’s a TV pilot, the key story element is the engine, or conflict in
the world. You’ll find it clearly established in both the first and final
scenes of the pilot, and it’ll also be the conflict between the first
two main characters to be introduced. You’ll know you’ve found
the engine because when you imagine its conflict, it’ll immediately
make you feel the cognitive effect of the entire series.

Lecture 24  •  Becoming a  Screenwriter 253


nn  If you’re instead reverse engineering a film script, begin by
identifying the special rule of the story world, which you can locate
either in the opening scene or in the antagonist’s behavior. Next,
determine the main character’s conflict with this world rule. Isolate
the fear that fuels the conflict.

nn  Then, move on to the plot. Write down the main story beats—
the moments in the plot where something major changes—so
you summarize the plot’s whole action with the minimum steps
needed. If you go through these beats in reverse, from the end to
the beginning, reviewing the author’s story choices, you’ll discover
the deep storytelling logic that connects them. Steal that deep
storytelling logic and leave the story beats behind.

nn  Finally, identify the what and the how of the tone. What parts of the
story world and the characters does the script focus on? And how
does it talk about them—with a god’s-eye tone, irony, sentiment,
comic generosity, or something else entirely?

nn  The more you practice this, the faster you’ll get. Reading one script
a week will give you 52 blueprints over the course of a year.

nn  Once you’ve picked your blueprint, start with your ending. For your
first few scripts, that ending should be similar in its broad outlines
to the ending in your blueprint. For example, if your blueprint is
Toy Story, have two strangers bond as they overcome a common
life challenge, only to end by seeing the challenge resurface.

nn  If you’re writing a pilot, your next step is to reverse engineer your
engine. What deep conflict in a story world would produce your
chosen cognitive effect? How can you put your own unique twist
on that conflict if it seems too similar to another TV series that you
know? Then, write a pilot that relentlessly establishes this engine
through its opening scene.

Lecture 24  •  Becoming a  Screenwriter 254


nn  If you’re instead reverse engineering a film, first figure out the
tone of your ending. Whoever talks in that tone is your narrator.
Next, reverse engineer your world-character conflict, which again
you can do by building back from your ending. First, ask yourself
whether the story world in your final scene is the same as it was at
the beginning.

nn  If it is, you first reverse engineer your story world and then go
back and build your character in conflict. If it isn’t, do the opposite.
Reverse engineer your character first, then build a story word
in conflict.

nn  Once you’ve got your characters and your story world, rough
out your plot by working back from your final scene to create the
action beats you need to get you there. If you get stuck or lost, ask
yourself questions like: What would make my character more afraid
than anything? What would threaten the big rule of my story world
more than anything?

FEEDBACK

nn  After you’ve written your first script, you’ll want to share it. The
point of a story is to connect with an audience, so you’ll want to see
how effectively you’ve connected.

nn  If you want honest feedback that doesn’t wreck your current
relationships, it’s best to build a group of writing friends. Listen to
their notes. But remember, writing groups are better at identifying
problems with your stories than giving you solutions. When
someone tells you that something in your script doesn’t work,
accept their criticism of what’s broken, but try to fix it your own way.

nn  Go back to your ending and remember what cognitive effect


you’re trying to accomplish. And stick to your blueprint when you
troubleshoot so that you’re working with a plan in mind.

Lecture 24  •  Becoming a  Screenwriter 255


BREAKING IN

nn  When you feel pretty good about one of your scripts, it’s time to
get it out into the world. One way to get your script out there is to
get it made into an indie film so it can be screened at film festivals.

nn  Before you make your script into a film, attend a film festival or two,
meet people, enjoy films, and get a sense of how the festival works.
Then, get together with some people you met there
and create and submit your own film. If your film
takes off on the festival circuit, you’ll
touch a huge audience, you’ll meet
new friends and collaborators, and
you’ll get to make more films.

nn  If you’re looking to break more directly


into the industry without getting
involved in production, one way is
through a script contest. The two top
film script contests are The Academy
Nicholl Fellowship and The Sundance
Institute Lab Program. You can find the
applications online.

nn  If you’re writing TV scripts instead, many of the


major television networks have their own script
contests. Apply to those. They’ll open a lot of
doors if you win.

nn  One other way into Hollywood is through


a development company. These are companies
that develop, package, and produce scripts.
If you don’t know anyone at a development
company, look up some that have made TV series
or films that you’ve liked. You can use a site called
IMDBPro.com to find all their credits and their
contact info.

Lecture 24  •  Becoming a  Screenwriter 256


PITCHING

nn  Once you figure out how to get your foot in the door, the secret to
getting further is to learn how to pitch. Young screenwriters often
think that a good pitch should condense their script down to a tidy
plot summary, like a kind of snappy logline.

nn  But the key to a good pitch is subtler than that. Rather than handing
your audience a finished story, you want to hand them a catchy
beginning, kicking off a narrative chain reaction in their brains so
that they start telling your story themselves.

nn  Plot summaries don’t build intrigue. Instead, they kill the suspense
by revealing too much. When you’re preparing a pitch, think about
how you can hook your audience the same way that the first page
of a script hooks a reader.

nn  Some writers are just naturally good at pitching. But if you want to
get better, the best way to start is by studying the beginnings of
your favorite scripts and identifying the precise method they use
to hook you. For example, sometimes they grab your curiosity by
posing a puzzle or a mystery. Sometimes they forge an emotional
bond by showing a character in a moment of crisis. Sometimes they
create wonder by opening the prospect of a new world.

nn  But even the best pitch will only get you so far. There has to be
a script behind it that lives up to expectations. To ensure that your
audience-pleasing pitches aren’t just empty promises, never stop
writing. Get a screenwriting program and write for an hour each
day—because the world can always use more good stories.

 FURTHER READING

IMDBPro.com

Lecture 24  •  Becoming a  Screenwriter 257


ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aristotle. Poetics. Not a quick read, but filled with intriguing technical
observations about literature.

Branagh, Kenneth. Henry 5 (film), 1989. The earliest heroic play, ushering
in the blueprint for heroic Hollywood scripts from Lawrence of Arabia
to Pulp Fiction.

Dragnet (radio series), season two, 1950. Listen and be amazed at how
almost every modern procedural developed their blueprint from one of
these episodes.

Gunsmoke, season one, 1955. The American Odyssey, epic and


extraordinary.

Hitchcock, Alfred. Psycho. A masterpiece of suspense. After you watch


it, read the 1959 novel on which it was based, and ask yourself: Why
does the film script depart from the novel by choosing to open on
Marion?

I Love Lucy, season one, 1951–1952. If you want to learn how sitcoms
work, you can’t find a more elegant blueprint.

Loncraine, Richard. Richard III (film), 1995. Young Shakespeare’s classic


tragedy, with a stunning performance by Ian McKellan. Provides the
basic blueprint for tragedy and debunks the old fiction of the tragic
flaw—because like all tragic heroes, Richard is undone by his greatest
strength.

Paik, Karen. To Infinity and Beyond: The Story of Pixar Animation


Studios. A brilliant insider’s look at the early days of Pixar.

Search for Tomorrow, season two, 1952–1953. The most popular


daytime American soap opera in history, focused on a kind-hearted
and determined widow. How would you update its recipe today?

Whedon, Joss. Much Ado About Nothing (film), 2012. With its witty,
slang-talking female lead, this movie provides the blueprint for modern
romantic comedy. This version fills in the backstory often missed by
viewers of the stage play.

Annotated Bibliography 258


OTHER MEDIA REFERRED TO
IN THIS COURSE
FILMS WORTH WATCHING
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A Room with a View (1985)
All About Eve (1950)
Annie Hall (1977)
The Big Short (2015)
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Casablanca (1942)
Chinatown (1974)
Citizen Kane (1941)
Dances with Wolves (1990)
The Departed (2006)
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Fargo (1996)
Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)
Forrest Gump (1994)
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
Gandhi (1982)
Her (2013)
The Hidden Fortress (1958)
It Happened One Night (1934)
Jaws (1975)
Jerry Maguire (1996)
Juno (2007)
L.A. Confidential (1997)
The Last Emperor (1987)

Other Media Referred To in This Course 259


Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The Lion King (1994)
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
MASH (1970)
The Matrix (1999)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Moonlight (2016)
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Ordinary People, Alvin Sargent (1980)
Out of Africa (1985)
The Princess Bride (1987)
Psycho (1960)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Rear Window (1954)
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Rocky (1976)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Social Network (2010)
Star Wars (1977)
The Sting (1973)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Toy Story (1995)
Triumph of the Will (1935)
12 Angry Men (1957)
12 Years a Slave (2013)
WarGames (1983)
When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

Other Media Referred To in This Course 260


BOOKS WORTH READING
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Bible, Genesis, King James Version
Collage Techniques: A Guide for Artists
and Illustrators, Gerald Brommer
Existentialism for Beginners, David Cogswell
The Godfather, Mario Puzo
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
Iliad, Homer
Introducing Romanticism: A Graphic Guide, Duncan Heath
Jaws, Peter Benchley
Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard: A
Definitive Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Greatest
Suspense Thriller of All Time, Matt Taylor
John Carter of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Most of Nora Ephron, Nora Ephron
“Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Edgar Allan Poe
Odyssey, Homer
Orlando furioso, Ludovico Ariosto
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the
Birth of a New Hollywood, Mark Harris
Poetics, Aristotle
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
The Princess Bride, William Goldman
Sign of the Four, Arthur Conan Doyle
A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin
The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James
When the Shooting Stops ... The Cutting Begins: A Film
Editor’s Story, Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen

Other Media Referred To in This Course 261


MUST-SEE TV
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003)
Cheers (1982–1993)
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000–2015)
Downton Abbey (2010–2015)
Dragnet (1951–1959)
Fargo (TV show) (2014– )
Friends (1994–2004)
Game of Thrones (2011– )
Grey’s Anatomy (2005– )
Gunsmoke (1955–1975)
House (2004–2012)
I Love Lucy (1951­–1957)
Law & Order (1990–2010)
Law & Order (1990–2010)
M*A*S*H (1972–1983)
Mad Men (2007–2015)
My So-Called Life (1994–1995)
Scrubs (2001–2010)
Seinfeld (1989–1998)
The Simpsons (1989– )
The Sopranos (1999–2007)
The Wire (2002–2008)
The Wonder Years (1988–1993)

PLAYS WORTH STUDYING


The Bacchae, Euripides
Birds, Aristophanes
The Comedy of Errors, William Shakespeare
The Conscious Lovers, Richard Steele
Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe
Frogs, Aristophanes

Other Media Referred To in This Course 262


Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Henry IV, Part 1, William Shakespeare
Lysistrata, Aristophanes
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare
Mother Courage and Her Children, Bertolt Brecht
Much Ado about Nothing, William Shakespeare
Oedipus Rex, Sophocles
Oresteia, Aeschylus
Othello, William Shakespeare
Richard III, William Shakespeare
Tamburlaine the Great, Christopher Marlowe
Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare

SCREENWRITING CONTESTS
Academy Nicholl Fellowships
http://www.oscars.org/nicholl

CBS Writers Mentoring Program


https://www.cbscorporation.com/diversity/diversity-
institute/writers-mentoring-program

Disney/ABC Writing Program


http://www.abctalentdevelopment.com/writing_program.html

Sundance Institute Feature Film Program


http://www.sundance.org/programs/feature-film

Writers Guild of America: Industry Diversity Writing


Programs, Conferences and Festivals
http://www.wga.org/the-guild/advocacy/diversity/
writing-programs-conferences-festivals

Other Media Referred To in This Course 263


IMAGE CREDITS

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