Exercise: When you’re stuck on your story, try telling it in a different setting.

I’m a big fan of exercises , they drill fundamentals and unlock creativity when we get stuck. This is one of my favorites, because it spurs creativity, helps bypass plot problems, and establishes what story truly is. Story isn’t setting, story isn’t world building, story isn’t even dialogue. Stories, at there core, can be boiled down to primal, archetypal relationships. Friends. Enemies. Lovers. Mentors. Sidekicks. Parents. The beautiful daughter of your enemy. God walking the earth in peasant clothes.

Consider Romeo and Juliet. It’s been told and retold in a variety of settings, to the point where it’s a cliché. It’s been done in space, in L.A.’s gangland (more than once), in New York’s West Side. The story specifics are so iconic that it can be moved to any other setting.

A good story can fit into any setting. The specifics of the world are of secondary import to the primary forces of character and conflict.


Take AVATAR, which is famously analogous to Pochantas. You can change the specifics and the story remains the same:

If AVATAR is about a crippled soldier who uses his dead brother’s Avatar to infiltrate an alien culture, only to go native, you can put that in other worlds:

SAME STORY, OLD WEST: Jake Sully is a greenhorn from back East who comes to the frontier. His late brother had respect from the local Lakota tribes, so he’s able to use his brother’s reputation to join them, only to go native…

SAME STORY, FAIRY TALE: Simple Jake’s brother left home, only to die. Don’t worry, said Simple Jake, I will take my brother’s old magic boots. The boots carried Simple Jake into the clouds, where he met the elves of the sky. There, he went native and…

SAME STORY, PIRATE: Jake O’Sully is a merchant mariner who inherits his late brother’s dread pirate ship. He uses that ship to infiltrate the pirate king’s fleet, only to go native…

In these various examples, love interest Neyteri goes from a noble alien huntress to a proud Lakota Squaw, or the Giant King’s amazonian daughter, or a rare female buccanneer. Villain Miles Quartrich becomes a racist Federal Marshall, the closeminded burgomeister of a town, or a merciless Admiral of her majesty’s navy.

If you’re stuck on a story, consider writing a one page plot precis and then change the setting. Your story isn’t about worldbuilding or specific details, it’s about archetypal relationships, the primitive, primal stuff. The stuff you could pitch to a caveman . By solving the story in the one page version using, say, old western specifics, you can then go back into whatever setting you’re actually working in, and use the old west specifics to fix your actual plot.

Note: Reddit user jc2535 had a great comment on this a few months ago, and it’s worth a read.

Saturday Screenwriting Class

The class would meet Saturdays, time TBD. There would be four 90 minute sessions, and participants would leave the class with a well-structured, forty beat outline.

The class costs $70 dollars. Ideally there’d be between 3-6 people.

I’ve done this once[1] before.

I learned a lot from my first class and am excited to offer it again.



CLASS BREAKDOWN Class 1 The three act structure Transposing the same story into multiple settings Filling out a logline. HOMEWORK: Break your idea into a one page synopsis.

Class 2 Analyzing your one page synopsis. Fixing the act breaks. HOMEWORK: Flesh your story out into five pages.

Class 3 Honing the pages. HOMEWORK: Break your story into 40 beats.

Class 4 Preparing outline for your first draft.

Comment if you’re interested.

The map is not the territory – screenwriting rules are only guidelines.

When someone says something like a script should be between 100-120 pages, it will generally cause an argument. It’s useful to remember that these are simply guidelines, and that it’s often more useful to consider why the advice is correct (it forces a useful economy of words, and makes the script more readable to buyers) than to find exceptions to the rule.

Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that “the map is not the territory”, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories, that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself. (from wikipedia)

Ideally, we’d have a word in English that meant “something expressed as a rule, but that is in fact a relative guideline used to model reality.” Unfortunately, we don’t. Until then, remember that rules are merely helpful guidelines that are never universally applicable, but often more useful than nothing.

Technicians versus Performers (“rules” vs “just write a great script”)

No one agrees on anything in screenwriting. One of the classic arguments is whether people should follow ‘rules’ or ‘just write a great script.’ This is a classic technician vs performer argument. It’s a war between two different approaches to learning and skill, and it’s useful to know where you fall on the continuum.

James Hunt vs Nikki Lauda. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. Michelangelo vs Donatello.

There are people who love “rules” and the neurotic security that comes with them, and there are people who hate them, seeing them as enemies to creativity. In my experience, the former group needs far fewer rules, the latter group needs more of them.

The irony is, both roads aspire to the same end goal – greatness. If you get really good at rules, you free yourself to play. If you get really good at playing, you end up discovering rules. The two ways don’t diverge, but they circle back to meet each other.

I’m a total technician, which means I’m bad at the things performers are good at. I work to shore up my weak side, but I’ll never be a true performer, just as true performers will never be a technician. Nor should they, the world needs all kinds.

Understanding the difference between the two styles, the gap in communication styles, and the strengths that come with both will help you enormously in writing and in life.

All modern writing is built on writing that came before.

“You’re always talking about genre. That’s for hacks! I’m a creative person who writes serious art.” I hear variations of this a lot. I’m sure it’s intended as a serious defense of a philosophy, but to me it always reads as both an excuse for a lazy understanding of genre and audience expectation, and a fundamental misunderstanding of how culture works. This is the writing version of creationism.

Writing is concentrated thinking. Everything is built on what came before. To understand Tarantino, understand his influences and then you’ll see the specific brilliance that made him understand the art of the past and create new developments that pushed the art forward. It’s an evolution.

We can’t produce purely original thoughts because we’re the beneficiary of all the ideas and writing that are part of the culture we grew up in. Without that support and framework, we’d be like pre-lingual humans or feral children trying to talk. We might be able to produce something, but it wouldn’t be something the audience could necessarily recognize.

It’s important to understand how writing and genre works and how it feeds into the expectation of an audience.  Knowledge is power, even if you’re a genius like Mozart. Actually, especially if you’re a genius like Mozart. In his words:

“It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.”

The premise of a movie is like a machine that generates entertaining scenes, setpieces and ideas. These are largely explored in the second act.

Your movie concept combined with the genre of movie creates the means by which entertainment is made. For instance, a time travel comedy would probably have a lot of moments where the existence of time travel led to funny set pieces. An avalanche action movie would probably have a lot of gunplay that somehow involved avalanches.

Generally, the concept of a movie is the implicit promise to the audience. If you went to see the new Godzilla movie, you’d be justifiably disappointed if Godzilla didn’t appear until the last twenty minutes. If you’re selling the promise of a giant monster wreaking havoc, it’s fair for an audience to expect a movie ticket price’s worth of giant monsters wreaking havoc.

A bad movie about, say, a vampire attacking Antarctica, would spend over half the script setting up the base, and then bring the vampire in after midpoint. This is kind of a cheat, and when I see it I feel like the writer is self-conscious about having enough ideas re: the core concept. The fear is understandable, but you shouldn’t have a problem coming up with 4-8 fun ideas off a high concept, if you have that much trouble, the topic might be too soft for development.

Scripts tend to work better when they explore one idea to the hilt, rather than explore two or more ideas in a more shallow way. So when you have a concept you’re proud of, set up the first act quickly, and then milk as much entertainment value out of the premise in the second act, because you won’t have much time for play in the third act, which is largely pro forma.