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MY

STORY
CAN BEAT UP
YOUR
STORY!
Ten Ways to Toughen Up Your Screenplay
FROM OPENING HOOK TO KNOCKOUT PUNCH

JEFFREY ALAN
SCHECHTER

M I C H A E L W I E S E P R O D U C T I O N S
Table of Contents

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS����������������������������������������������������������� vii

INTRODUCTION: Why Your Screenplay


Needs to Be the Toughest Kid on the Block
And why being just as good isn’t good enough�������������������������������� xi

1. My Story Can Beat Up Your Story!


How to avoid the most common mistake of all failed
screenplays, a story that’s a ninety-seven-pound weakling��������������� 1

2. My Theme Is Smarter Than Your Theme


The simple and potent way to understand what your story
is really about����������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 13

3. My Hero’s a Winner, Your Hero’s


a Wiener!
Drive your story with a hero who’s not a zero by asking
four questions����������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 21

4. My Hero Fights, Your Hero Bites!


Keep your story moving with a hero that rockets through
the same four archetypes that all great movie heroes share ����������� 39

5. Your Bad Guy Punches Like My Sister


Turn your hero’s worst nightmare into your story’s best friend
by understanding the unity of opposites ����������������������������������������� 49

6. My Hero Has Buds, Your Hero Has Duds


Know your hero, and your villain, by the company they keep������� 57

7. I Can Pitch, You Throw Like A Girl


The QuickPitch formula, including the three most important
words every good pitch must have��������������������������������������������������� 67

8. I Plot, You Plotz


Tell your story the way people expect, but fill it with
plot twists they don’t ����������������������������������������������������������������������� 75

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M y S t o r y C a n B e a t U p Y o u r S t o r y !        S c h e c h t e r

9. I’m Not Afraid of the Dark


Meet the “Guide,” your story’s next best friend����������������������������� 99

10. I Work Smarter, You Work Harder


— And Not in a Good Way!
The My Story Can Beat Up Your Story! tough writer’s
business plan����������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 113

CONCLUSION
Write now, right now... (and then write again, right away!)��������� 125

APPENDIX: Five Movies, All Beat Up��������������������� 129

About the Author ������������������������������������������������������������� 163

Index of Films����������������������������������������������������������������������� 167

vi
CHAPTER 1

My Story Can
Beat Up Your
Story!
How to avoid the most
common mistake of all failed
screenplays, a story that ’s a
ninety-seven-pound weakling

I
know it’s hard to believe, but there
was once a time when stories would
kick sand in my face. Sadly, these
were my stories. I was such a weakling
that my own stories could pants me and
shove me into a locker, so I set out to dis-
cover, read, and learn everything I could
find about what makes a story good.
One of the first books I read was Writing
Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge. In
it, Mr. Hauge doesn’t say what a story is
but rather what a story must do: “enable
a sympathetic character to overcome a
series of increasingly difficult, seemingly
insurmountable obstacles and achieve a

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compelling desire.”1 Everything you are about to learn flows from this
prima facie sentence: who your hero is, who your villain is, what the
nature of their goal is, and the scope of their mutually exclusive jour-
neys. And it all builds from this simple description of story.
The most intriguing and informative part of what Mr. Hauge said is
what he didn’t say about story. Imagine for a moment that he said your
story had to “enable a character to overcome obstacles and achieve a
desire.” Character, obstacles, desire. That’s clean and ­simple.
It’s also wrong.
Your story isn’t about a character; it’s about a sympathetic character.
Those aren’t obstacles; they’re a series of increasingly difficult, seemingly
insurmountable obstacles. We all have desires, but that’s a compelling
desire your hero is after. A need, not a want. Understanding this is crucial.
What’s the enduring image that comes to mind when you think
about Casablanca: the letters of transit or Humphrey Bogart’s char-
acter, Rick, making puppy eyes at Ingrid Bergman? Puppy eyes! How
about the enduring image when you think about Titanic: the ship or
Jack and Rose? People don’t care about letters of transit or ships.
Those are things. People care about people.
When we watch movies, we first care about the heroes. They’re
our tour guides into the world of the story. Do we like them? Are we
like them? Do we want to spend the next 108 minutes of our lives
with them?
Once we’re onside with the hero, it naturally flows that next we
care about what the hero cares about: his or her wants, needs, and
deepest, most heartfelt desires. Finally, we care about how difficult it
will be for the hero to achieve those wants, needs, and desires. How
dragged through the mud — literally and emotionally — will the
hero be in pursuit of these compelling desires?
One simple definition, but it’s the spring from which everything
flows.

MY STORY DEVELOPMENT CAN BEAT


UP YOUR STORY DEVELOPMENT!
Of course, what good is having a whole bunch of good story-building
techniques if the underlying story you’re applying it to, uh, stinks?
I can’t imagine anything worse for your career than spending three,

1  Michael Hauge, Writing Screenplays That Sell (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 4.

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M y S t o ry Ca n B e at U p Yo u r S t o ry !

six, twelve, or more months of your life writing something that never
has a chance of selling from the very start.
Stinky stories come in a variety of fragrances: Some reek from
being boring. Others have the stench of familiarity. Still others suffer
from the overpowering odor of unmarketability. Whatever the source
of the stink, the result is the same: a screenplay that does nothing to
advance your career.
I know... I know... what about all those bad movies that get made?
The reality is that nobody sets out to make a bad movie. The other
reality is that movies get made for all sorts of reasons, not all of them
having to do with quality. Remember the movie Down Periscope?
Neither do I. Very few people do. But Paramount Pictures wanted
Kelsey Grammer to do another season of Frasier, and he wanted
to make this movie, so quicker than you can say, “What the hell’s
that movie Paramount let Kelsey Grammer make so they could have
another season of Frasier?” Down Periscope gets a green light.
And too bad for you, because that will not be your trajectory. No
studio is tripping over itself to do you any favors. If you want your
movie bought, you’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way:
by coming up with a good story and telling it well.
Being lazy, I’ve managed to distill the main components of a story-
development game plan down to two parts.

PART 1: GET AN IDEA


I’m guessing that if you’re reading this book, you already have at
least one idea for a movie. Hopefully you have more. If you want
a career, you need to be an idea generator. And don’t just come up
with ideas when you need something to write; come up with them all
the time and save them.
Ideas are lurking everywhere. Newspapers, magazine articles,
flights of fancy, things that happen to you, comments said in passing:
Once you make being on the lookout for story ideas an active part of
your life, you’ll be filthy in them.
The writer James V. Hart used to play a game called “What
if?” with his kids around the dinner table. One of his kids asked,
“What if Peter Pan grew up?” The answer turned into the Spielberg
movie, Hook.

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Once I was speaking to my wife (we do that, occasionally), when


she mentioned that a recently divorced friend of ours was getting
remarried... for the third time! I commented that if I were husband
number three, I’d want to meet husbands one and two. I mean, since
women are often attracted to the same kind of guy and she already
left two of them, if husband number three was exactly like husbands
one and two, what chance would he have? I immediately realized
that this was a concept for a screenplay. Two months later, I finished
the script. Two months later, ABC optioned it.
A few years ago I read a Time magazine article about teen courts
in high school. As I write this I am sitting on the set of the series I
co-created based on that magazine article. We’re in our third season.
Writers get ideas. Working writers find ideas. Everywhere.

PART 2: FIGURE OUT IF THE IDEA


IS WORTH DEVELOPING
Once you have an idea in hand, you next have to figure out if it’s
worth developing. You’re going to be living with this thing for the
next big chunk of your life; you better make sure it’s good company.
How will you know? All good ideas share several qualities: wish ful-
fillment, emotional dimension, business smarts, and originality.
Good stories give the audience a chance to fulfill a vibrant wish of
some kind. Who wouldn’t want to have super powers or the greatest
romance in the world? How about living the adventure of a life-
time, or being the hero who saves the world? Hollywood is called
the dream factory as much for the hopes of the people wanting to get
into the business as for the dreams its stories inspire in the rest of us.
Messrs. Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen didn’t call their company
DreamWorks because they like napping.
Beyond wish fulfillment, a good story should offer a fully dimen-
sional emotional experience. Comedies without heart fall flat. Dramas
without the occasional smile are dreary. And if you have an idea that
offers the chance for thrills, laughs, and tears? You’re golden! You
need to spend time working on ideas that will fire up as many differ-
ent emotions in your audience as possible. Remember Sheriff Brody
making the joke about shoveling chum — BIG LAUGH! — a mere
moment before the shark popped out of the water — BIG YIKES?

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M y S t o ry Ca n B e at U p Yo u r S t o ry !

That’s a movie moment of legend. What would you give to come up


with something like that?
Before you get into bed with an idea, you also have to ask if it’s
marketable. If you desperately want to make a silent movie, in black
and white, with a four-hour-plus running time, you had better be
a beret-wearing, filterless cigarette-smoking, independently financed
European auteur with several million friends all willing to see your
movie and pay full price. As much as we may grouse about the
commercialization of art, moviemaking is a business and so is screen-
writing. Write something that feels like a product people want to
buy. No agent will be willing to get involved in your career if he or
she feels that you’re writing stuff nobody wants. After you’re suc-
cessful, then go make your artistic fart somewhere.
Next, thanks to the Internet, researching how original your idea
is is as simple as firing up a search engine and typing in a few key-
words: zombie+musical+western+Lithuanian+pirates. If you want
people to buy your screenplay, you need to know that it isn’t like a
dozen others currently in development. Why spend time writing your
comedy about a bride with cold feet when every studio has two just
like it meandering through the system?
So, let’s say you’ve gotten your idea, it’s chock-a-block full of wish
fulfillment, just thinking about it makes you laugh and cry at the
same time, it’s something you and several million of your friends
would pay good coin to see, and there’s absolutely nothing like it in
development at the studios. Can you finally start running it through
the My Story Can Beat Up Your Story! system? Yes! And it begins
with that old standby, the three-act structure.

THE THREE-ACT STRUCTURE


Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Spaceship goes up, space-
ship gets crippled, spaceship makes it back home. Cop catches
criminal, criminal escapes cop, cop brings criminal back in.
The three-act structure has been around since cavemen first sat
around campfires and told stories to each other (“Og see mammoth,
Og chase mammoth, Og kill mammoth.”) I see no reason to discard
this handy convention, though I will happily make the distinction
that one can divide the three-act structure into four equal parts, with
act 2 taking up two of those parts.

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I know that there are a few die-hards who maintain that screen-
plays should be 120 pages. Uh-uh. Not yours. Not from now on.
And you want to know why? Because you’re writing the script that
gets bought, remember? The first thing those decent, hardworking
agents, producers, or studio executives I mentioned in the introduc-
tion do when they get a script to read is flip to the end to see how
many pages it is. They see 108 pages and they think, “I can do 108
standing on my head!” They start reading your script, not with the
sense of dread that 120 pages inspires, but a sense of hope.
Not only that, but at the rough estimate of a minute per page,
a 108-page script gives you just enough material for the aver-
age movie. There are many 90-minute movies that began life as
120-plus-page scripts and had all the fluff taken out in the cutting
room. I remember when I started working on Dennis the Menace
Strikes Again! and was given the screenplay from the first Dennis
the Menace movie to use as a reference. It was 144 pages long. One
hundred and forty-four! Guess what the running time of Dennis the
Menace is? Ninety-six minutes. With credits. There was a lot of fluff
in that script that never saw the light of day in the finished film. I
don’t know if it was all shot and then left on the cutting-room floor,
but if it was, that means a few million dollars were tossed in the
InSinkErator. Your goal is to be as fluff-less as possible. And despite
a recent trend towards longer pictures, your scripts shouldn’t be one
of them. Not at this point in your career.
And if those two reasons aren’t enough, it simply takes less time
to write 108 pages than to write 120. If it takes you six months to
write 120 pages, writing 12 less pages saves you two weeks. Yes, I
am that anal.
So once more: three acts, with act 2 being the same length as act 1
and act 3 combined, all conspiring to run to 108 pages.

THE CENTRAL QUESTION


One of the most important components of My Story Can Beat Up
Your Story! is the “central question.” The central question is the

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M y S t o ry Ca n B e at U p Yo u r S t o ry !

800-pound gorilla of story concepts, and a good central question


helps guarantee that your screenplay doesn’t run out of gas in the
middle. Once the central question is answered definitively yes or no,
the movie’s over. It comes right at the end of act 1, and is actu-
ally the signpost that act 1 is done. Everything in act 1 flows to the
central question and everything in acts 2 and 3 flows from the cen-
tral question. In reality, the central question is more accurately the
central questions, in the plural, because a good central question has
three parts. They’re never stated outright, but the three parts of a
good central question are what’s on your audience’s minds as your
story unfolds, twists, turns, and resolves.
In Star Wars the central question is “Will Luke destroy the Death
Star, save the Princess, and become a Jedi like his father?” Once each
part of that question is answered either yes or no, the movie is over.
In The Dark Knight the central question is “Will Batman defeat The
Joker, get Rachel to love him, and finally be the hero?” Once those
three parts are answered there is nothing more to say except “What
a GREAT movie!”

THE THREE PARTS TO THE


CENTRAL QUESTION
The three parts of the central question are built on your hero’s goals
in three areas of his or her life: a physical goal, an emotional goal,
and a spiritual goal.2
The physical goal is the main action of the hero, his or her most
obvious mission in the story. It’s also the goal that affects the most
people in the story; it means a lot to a lot of people. Luke’s physical
goal in Star Wars is to destroy the Death Star, which means a lot to a
lot of people — just ask the nice folks on Alderaan who got blown up
because Luke and company didn’t deliver the plans to the rebels soon
enough. If Luke doesn’t destroy the Death Star, it’ll blow up more plan-
ets. Luke’s physical goal means a lot to billions and billions of people.
The emotional goal is the objective that means a lot, but only to
a few people. It’s the goal that your hero and those around your
hero feel in their hearts. To whom does it matter if Luke saves the

2  In his book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (New York: Dell


Publishing, 1982), Syd Field talks similarly about separating your hero’s life into three
basic components: professional, personal, and private.

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Princess? Well, it means a lot to the Princess, for sure. It also means
a lot to Han Solo, Chewbacca, the droids, and Obi-Wan. However,
saving the Princess does not mean a lot to the people on Tatooine;
they’re too far removed from the situation to have an emotional con-
nection to that particular mission. Plus, they have that pesky womp
rat infestation to worry about. So the emotional goal is the hero’s
objective, which directly impacts and drives the hero and the hero’s
inner circle of friends and associates.
Finally, your hero has a spiritual goal, whether he or she knows
it or not. Something in your hero’s being is unfulfilled: a private,
inner quest. It’s the thing that does not mean a lot to a lot, or even
a lot to a few. It means a lot to the hero. It’s the innermost fear or
regret or ghost that the hero will deal with from FADE IN to FADE
OUT. If the hero had a shrink, this would be the hot topic of con-
versation while lying on the couch. Contrasting the physical goal to
the spiritual goal, the physical goal is driven by something that has
forced itself on the hero’s life in the present, and the spiritual goal is
that thing with which the hero has been grappling for a long, long
time. Luke’s spiritual issue is the death of his father, and once he
learns that Pops was a Jedi, Luke’s spiritual goal is to become a Jedi
like his dad. So, in Star Wars, “Will Luke destroy the Death Star?”
is his physical goal, “Will Luke save the Princess?” is his emotional
goal, and “Will Luke become a Jedi like his father?” is his spiri-
tual goal. Taken all together, these physical, emotional, and spiritual
goals become the central question of Star Wars.
Sometimes, as in Star Wars, the ultimate answer to all three parts
of the central question is yes. Yes, Luke destroys the Death Star! Yes,
he saves the Princess! Yes, he became a Jedi like his father! However,
not every successful movie has such an upbeat ending. In The Dark
Knight (“Will Batman defeat the Joker, will Bruce get Rachel to love
him, and will he finally be the hero?”), the answers are a bit more
complicated. Does Batman defeat The Joker? Yes. Does he get Rachel
to love him? No, she not only rejects him, but she dies. Does Batman
finally get to be the hero? Yes. However, he becomes the hero by
allowing the citizens of Gotham to think that he’s the villain, so it’s
a bittersweet yes. Even so, all three parts of the central question are
answered definitively by the end.

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M y S t o ry Ca n B e at U p Yo u r S t o ry !

I’m a sucker for happy endings, as are most of the readers and stu-
dio muck-a-mucks you hope will buy your screenplay, so you may want
to seriously consider answering all three parts of your central question
as positively as possible. Does that mean you should only write movies
that have a final image of the hero riding off on a magic unicorn and
trailing pixie dust? Not at all. Just know going in that if you write a
movie in which all three parts of your central question are answered no,
you may not get the reaction (or financial reward) you’re ­hoping for.

TIMING THE ANSWERS TO THE


CENTRAL QUESTION
While the three parts of the central question can be answered one at
a time as you race to the climax of act 3, often the closer together
you answer the parts the more satisfying the story will be for the
audience, particularly when all three are yes answers. And if you
connect all three parts in ways the audience can’t anticipate, you’ve
done something truly admirable and unique in your story.
In Star Wars, Luke wants to save the Princess, which he can’t
do unless he destroys the Death Star, which he can’t do unless he
becomes a Jedi like his father. And with one shot into an exhaust
port, he accomplishes all three at the same time.
In Jaws, Chief Brody will be accepted as a member of the Amity
community only if he kills the shark, which he can do only if he

Roy Scheider takes aim at the central question of Jaws.

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conquers his fear of the water. It’s no coincidence that Brody’s “Smile,
you son-of-a....” rifle shot takes place when he is straddling the mast
of the sunken boat, right in the water, nose-to-nose with the shark.
With one bullet he accomplishes all three goals, not to mention mak-
ing enough sashimi to feed New England.
Both of these films are task-oriented, action-based stories, so it’s
easier to craft a whiz-bang climax where all three parts of the cen-
tral question collide. In other, more layered stories such as The Dark
Knight and Forrest Gump, it’s actually better to dish out the reso-
lutions at a more leisurely pace to allow the audience a chance to
process the moments. In The Dark Knight, Batman fails to secure
Rachel’s love because she is killed, so that’s a huge part of the cen-
tral question that is answered no. That event happens just two-thirds
of the way through the movie, leaving both the audience and Bruce
Wayne a chance to live with that answer for almost another hour of
movie time. Indeed, it’s this very no that drives the other two res-
olutions: Will Batman defeat the Joker and will he finally become
the hero? Batman does defeat the Joker, and by being forced to kill
Harvey Dent, he takes on both the mantle of hero and fugitive.
Whether you’re able to tie the different parts of the central question
together or not, just remember that once you answer all three parts of
the central question, your story is over and all that’s left for your audi-
ence to do is to shake the popcorn off their laps and go home.

C H A P TE R 1 R E V I E W
1. What must your story do? “Enable a sympathetic character
to overcome a series of increasingly difficult, seemingly insur-
mountable obstacles and achieve a compelling desire” (Michael
Hauge). Key words are sympathetic, increasingly difficult, seem-
ingly insurmountable, and compelling.
2. What must you do? Become a story generator. Write down
every idea you get the moment you get it. Don’t wait for later
because you might forget the idea by then. If you don’t have
something to write it down with, send yourself an email from
your cell phone, or even call yourself and leave yourself a mes-
sage with the idea.

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M y S t o ry Ca n B e at U p Yo u r S t o ry !

3. Determine if your story is worth developing. Does it offer a


strong wish fulfillment? Emotional dimension? Is it market-
savvy? Original?
4. Understand that three acts is four equal parts, with act 2 being
twice as long as act 1 and act 3.
5. You are aiming to write 108 killer pages. Longer is worse than
shorter.
6. Understand how to build your story’s central question with a
hero who is connected to the story with a physical goal, an
emotional goal, and a spiritual goal.
7. If your story allows it, try to answer the three parts of the cen-
tral question as closely together as possible.

C H A P TE R 1 S TO RY B E ATE R E X E RC I S E S
1. Think about an incident in your own life: something challeng-
ing you went through that had a compelling goal. If the goal
wouldn’t be compelling to an outside observer, what would you
have to do to adjust it so that it was compelling? Would this
same outside observer think you were sympathetic? If not, what
sort of motivating factor would you have to invent to swing
the observer over to your side of the story? Can you chart sev-
eral increasingly difficult, seemingly insurmountable obstacles
you had to overcome in the course of your story? If not and
you needed to, how might you embellish the story to make the
obstacles more intriguing? Congratulations! You just adapted
an incident from your own life into a movie idea.
2. Play the My Story Can Beat Up Your Story! mix-and-match game:
■■ Go to http://www.mscbuys.com/mix-match/ and pick a
description from Box A such as “ugly, “creative,” “brave,”
etc. Turn that word into the ultimate expression of that
description: “ugliest,” “most creative,” “bravest.”
■■ Pick a profession from Box B such as “astronaut,” “soccer
coach,” “school teacher,” etc.
■■ Set the timer on your iPhone (of course you have an iPhone)
for five minutes.

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■■ Without stopping to think, crank out a story idea for the


“somethingest character” you just randomly invented. The
“ugliest blacksmith” or the “most fearful pilot.”
■■ Do this two more times, with two more character combina-
tions.
■■ Congratulations again! You just developed three ideas in fif-
teen minutes.
3. Take the true-life incident from the first step and the three
ideas from the second, and try to give them all the following
elements: strong wish fulfillment, emotional dimension, market-
savviness, and originality. Any that don’t hit all four points,
take out behind the barn and Old Yeller ’em. Of the ideas that
survive, put the best one aside for later. You’re going to need it.

12
CHAPTER 2

My Theme Is
Smarter Than
Your Theme
The simple and potent way
to understand what your
story is really about

F
or the longest time, thinking about
theme was one of those writing
necessities that I knew I should
care about more than I did but didn’t. I
think I was traumatized by a discussion
I had early in my career with a producer
about the theme of a story we were devel-
oping. I’d tell him one thing; he’d counter
with something else. Back and forth this
went, and before I knew it two weeks
of my life were gone and I hadn’t writ-
ten a single word. Talking with him about
theme was like trying to hit a moving tar-
get. We couldn’t even agree what theme
was. And apparently we’re not alone.

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Everyone knows that the theme of The Ugly Duckling is “Don’t


judge a book by its cover,” right? Only, is that the theme or is it
the moral? Or maybe it’s both? Or maybe it’s neither and the theme
is really “When you believe in yourself, anything is possible.” Or
maybe I should just pour myself another scotch?
Even our good friend, Professor Wikipedia, is befuddled when it
comes to theme, describing it as “a fundamental component of fic-
tion,” but then devoting a paltry 140 words to describing it. Some
fundamental component! And yet, as tough writers we know that
theme is something we should concern ourselves with.
When I sit down to write, my goal is to stay nimble and not get
bogged down in theory. Too much theory — like too much pizza,
sun, or money — can lead to ruination and despair. But instead of
ending up fat, tanned, and rich, you will end up hamstrung by story
information and unable to write. The My Story Can Beat Up Your
Story! business plan demands that you tell stories as quickly as pos-
sible and then tell more stories, so I developed the following thematic
magic bullet, one that will give your scripts the complexity and lay-
ers they need without being a huge pain in the rump to understand.
To me, the absolute minimum understanding of theme needed to tell
a story is this: Heroes ask questions and villains make arguments.

QUESTIONS AND ARGUMENTS


As I’ve learned around my house, voicing an opinion too strongly
can get one into trouble, especially when that one is me. At the start
of your story the same can be said for your hero. It’s not that your
hero doesn’t start off having an opinion, but it generally lacks cer-
tainty and conviction.
Luke doesn’t know if Obi-Wan’s idea about becoming a Jedi
makes sense in the “modern” age in which they live (Star Wars).
Sheriff Brody isn’t sure that he and his family will ever be accepted
as part of Amity (Jaws). Annie Reed isn’t sure that love is or even
can be magical (Sleepless in Seattle). Jake Sully doesn’t know if the
Na’vi are worthwhile as a people (Avatar).
Your villain, on the other hand, does not suffer from a lack of
conviction. Governor Tarkin knows that the Jedi are no more (Star
Wars); Sam knows that the magic of love doesn’t happen twice
(Sleepless in Seattle); Quaritch knows that the Na’vi are useless

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savages (Avatar); and the shark in Jaws represents the argument


that an outsider will never be accepted by the island of Amity! Put
another way: The hero asks the thematic question, and the villain
states the thematic argument. Ultimately, your hero and your audi-
ence discover that, as compelling as your villain’s argument may be,
he or she is not only wrong, but it’s that wrong thinking which leads
to the villain’s ultimate downfall in act 3.
In Star Wars the thematic question is “Which is more powerful,
faith or technology?” Luke thinks he knows that technology is more
powerful until Obi-Wan tells him about the Force. Now he’s not
so sure, and Luke grapples with this quandary for the duration of
the story.
Governor Tarkin, on the other hand, has no such confusion.
He is surrounded by technology. From the Death Star itself to his
half-cyborg henchman, Darth Vader, Tarkin’s whole existence is an
argument in favor of the power of technology over faith, as is evi-
dent from this snarky comment Tarkin makes to Vader: “The Jedi are
extinct, their fire has gone out of the universe. You, my friend, are all
that’s left of their religion.” Vader, for all of his shortcomings, embod-
ies a different thematic argument than Tarkin’s. Vader knows that
faith is more powerful than technology, as he makes clear during the
following scene:
Vader: Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve
constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant
next to the power of the Force.
Imperial Goon: Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s
ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion
has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given
you clairvoyance enough to find the rebels’ hidden fortress….
(Vader gestures with his hand and the Imperial Goon starts
to choke.)
Vader: I find your lack of faith disturbing.

Yet for all of his choking of effeminate Imperial goons, Vader’s


faith is on shaky ground, too. His own disturbing lack of faith is
what destroyed him way back when in his fight against Obi-Wan in
Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, and ultimately regain-
ing his faith is what will redeem him at the end of Star Wars: Episode
VI — Return of the Jedi.

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M y S t o r y C a n B e a t U p Y o u r S t o r y !        S c h e c h t e r

(Just a side note: Darth Vader is often mistaken as the villain of


Star Wars, but the real villain is Peter Cushing’s character, Governor
Tarkin. The Death Star is Tarkin’s baby, not Vader’s. If he screws up,
it will be Tarkin who will have to face the Emperor, not Vader. Vader
is just Tarkin’s goon.)
In Sleepless in Seattle the thematic question is asked by Annie:
“Can the magic of love happen to the same person twice?” Annie
has heard Sam on the radio saying that a love like the one he had
with his departed wife can never happen again. Annie isn’t so sure
he’s right. Sam is actually the villain of Annie’s story because he car-
ries the thematic argument that the magic of love CANNOT happen
twice. Sam’s son Jonah believes that it can, and by the end of the
movie, so does everyone.
In Star Trek (2009) the thematic question is “Can you gain
strength from anger before it destroys you?” Spock is driven to join
Starfleet by the animosity he feels towards his fellow Vulcans who
considered him impure. He has become who he is because of this
anger, and he believes that he can remain unaffected — uncompro-
mised — by it. Nero, the Romulan commander, believes that anger
can make you stronger and more focused. You can’t have enough of
the stuff! Once Spock realizes that his anger makes him unworthy of
commanding a starship, he steps aside in favor of Kirk. Nero never
acknowledges that his anger has undone himself and his crew:
Nero: I would rather suffer the destruction of Romulus a
thousand times than accept the help of a Federation starship!
Kirk: You got it.

Nero’s unwavering commitment to anger and revenge is his undo-


ing. Spock’s willingness to give up his anger and replace it with logic
is the rebirth of a franchise!

THEME ACROSS THE ACTS


Understanding how theme plays throughout your story can be eas-
ily charted by breaking it into four parts which line up with the four
sections of acts 1, 2, and 3:

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Act 1: We see the thematic argument in action — we see the power


and the impact of the villain’s thematic argument. Something has to
push your hero to become a hero, and the thematic argument is the
power behind the push. Look how mighty the Empire is, with all
its flashy, blinky buttons! Look how shattered and broken Sam and
Jonah are because of the loss of the magical love of their wife and
mother! Look how ferocious, unrelenting, and territorial the shark
has become! As you write this part of your script, remember that
this section is ultimately about the full statement of the thematic
­argument.
Act 2, first part: We see the thematic question in action — it’s
now your hero’s turn. As we’ll see in Chapter 4, your hero will be
going on a journey, propelled out of his or her life by the thematic
argument. Your hero will now have to test the power of his or her
convictions. Whatever the thematic question is that’s on your hero’s
lips, he or she will start whispering it at the start of act 2 and be
shouting it by the midpoint of the story.
Act 2, second part: Thematic question versus thematic argument
— the hero knows what he or she believes, the hero knows what the
villain believes, and now it’s time for these two world views to clash
like never before. The hero is definitely leaning towards a thematic
certainty, but this part of your script is the crucible. How far is Brody
willing to go in order to be accepted by the people of Amity Island in
Jaws? How far is Annie willing to go to discover if love is magic in
Sleepless in Seattle? And when they hit opposition, sometimes crush-
ing opposition, how far is your hero willing to bounce back?
Act 3: The hero creates a thematic synthesis — your hero’s the-
matic journey comes to a close by achieving a deeper and more
complete understanding of both the thematic question and the the-
matic argument by creating a synthesis between the two. It’s the
thematic equivalent of asking, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

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M y S t o r y C a n B e a t U p Y o u r S t o r y !        S c h e c h t e r

In Star Wars, which is stronger, faith or technology? Luke learns


that he needs both; he uses the Force (faith) to target an open exhaust
port and then uses a photon torpedo (a big, glowy chunk of technol-
ogy) to destroy the Death Star. Faith is stronger than technology only
if they work together in harmony.
In Jaws, is it true that one can never be accepted by the people who
treat you as an outsider? No. Brody realizes that he can be accepted
into a community only if he is willing to sacrifice all for the community.
In Sleepless in Seattle, can the magic of love happen to the same
person twice? Yes, but only if you’re willing to give yourself over to
it regardless of the consequences (aka, leaving affable Walter in order
to maybe… maybe… find your magical love at the top of the Empire
State Building).
In other words, thematic synthesis is the answer to the thematic
question with the addition of a clause that begins “only if….”

Really? Is that it?


There’s plenty more to be said about theme. There are rubrics to
be learned, sub-themes to be amplified on, points to be made about
tying theme to specific action, to where and when and why….
FORGET ALL OF THAT!
What you’ve just been given is the minimum amount of thematic
blather you need to get a good, solid, working first draft of a screen-
play. As you write, make sure that there is a clean thematic question
from your hero and a countering thematic argument from your vil-
lain. These two viewpoints clash, and the hero synthesizes a unique
view as a result. Done! Try to get any more complicated than that
at this point in your story’s development and you may wake up one
morning to discover that two weeks have gone by and you’re just as
traumatized as a certain young writer I used to know.

C H A P TE R 2 R E V I E W
1. Heroes ask questions. Villains make arguments.
2. Theme across the acts looks like this:
■■ Act 1: Thematic argument in action
■■ Act 2, first part: Thematic question in action
■■ Act 2, second part: Thematic question versus thematic argument
■■ Act 3: The hero’s creation of a thematic synthesis

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C H A P TE R 2 S TO RY B E ATE R E X E RC I S E S
1. Go to http://www.mscbuys.com/theme-table/ and download the
blank table.
2. In column 1, make a list of five favorite movie heroes or hero-
ines.
3. In column 2, write their thematic question. Make sure you
phrase it as a question.
4. In column 3, write the corresponding villains from those mov-
ies.
5. In column 4, write the villain’s thematic argument. Make sure
you phrase it like a statement.
6. In column 5, write the thematic synthesis.
7. Remember that idea you put aside in Chapter 1’s Story Beater
Exercise? Take it out now, give your character a name, and put
him or her at the bottom of the first column, after all the other
heroes.
8. In the next column over, write down what you think your
hero’s thematic question is. Let’s say you picked “most cow-
ardly soldier.” What would be a good thematic question for
a cowardly soldier? A few come to mind right away: “Is there
ever a good time to fight versus run?” Another is “Can a cow-
ard ever become a hero?”
9. Now imagine the absolute best person to challenge that ques-
tion with a countering argument. Give that person a name and
put him or her at the bottom of the list of villains.
10. Write down your villain’s thematic argument. Playing off the
two examples above, the argument might be “Never back down
from a fight, any fight!” Or “Once a coward, always a cow-
ard!” Who might this person be, relative to your cowardly
soldier hero? A decorated war-hero parent? A spouse? A com-
manding officer? Just pick one for now and make a note. You
can always change this person later if you want.
11. In the last column, write down the thematic synthesis of all
the thematic questions and thematic arguments, including your
own. Referring to the example above, the thematic synthesis

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might be: “Sometimes backing away takes greater courage than


fighting,” or “A coward can become a hero when he or she is
willing to sacrifice for others.”
12. Congratulations! You just crafted both a workable hero and
a villain based on theme… and we haven’t even talked about
heroes and villains yet! Damn, you’re good.

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