On theme (or movies are an illustration of a moral universe).

Life is poorly written. The objectives are vague, the plotting is sloppy, and characters enter and exit without any logic or any guarantee we’ll see them again. Even if you hold there is some kind of god-like author up there, even the most devout will point out that he moves in mysterious ways. In life, good men die, liars prosper, or sometimes the opposite or any other permutation, and we’re all just one aneurysm away from an arbitrary and meaningless death.

Movies, by contrast, are models of a moral universe, on constructed by a writer, a logical screenwriting god intent on making a point. By understanding this, you understand theme, the ways movies differ from life, and how you can use theme to build your script in a logical and efficient way. The moral of a movie informs every atom of its construction.

Writing should have a sense of unity to it. Unity is a lofty word that basically means “don’t be arbitrary.” You know that old meme that goes “I see what you did there?” That’s writing in a nutshell. We always want to see what you did there. Every element in a script should have a purpose and intelligence behind it, even if we can only see it after all is said and done.

Themes allow stories to have a sense of unity. All movies are propaganda for a moral. That said, the moral might not be reassuring. On a meta level, some movies actively work to eschew any sense of meaning. Even in these examples, they can be judged by how arbitrary they seem to be. If a movie aspires to seem random and pointless and it succeeds its done a good job. If some kind of moral ends up bleeding through, it has failed. If you hold that movies must illustrate a theme, all elements in movies must affect the values of the theme in a positive or negative way (even the evil villains in a movie about heroism help illustrate the theme). When you chose your theme, you are making a cogent, powerful, seductive argument for the world being the way you see it. To this end, every line of dialogue, character choice, action, and image should work to sell the overall point you’re trying to make.

Unlike life, stories are driven by plot and built on a logic. Real-life humans can remain static their entire lives, story characters are challenged and changed with every passing sequence. Movies are well organized and carefully plotted, life is not. Movies have an endpoint, life perpetuates itself like a a bad soap opera. Movies end on a thematically appropriate image, the universe will outlast mankind, our sun, and endure through an eternity of timeless entropy. Thank goodness for movies, it’s nice to live in a world where things make sense, even if it’s just for a hundred pages or so.

Knowing about something is not the same as knowing it.

In an ideal world, knowledge would be like a Pokemon: you could capture it once, and keep it forever, ready to serve at a moments notice. Sadly, knowledge isn’t so readily gained. You need to reinforce it ad naseum until it’s ingrained in your subconscious.

If there was any confusion...
If there was any confusion…

 

Here are some old school writing pointers that have been floating around for years.

1. Write every day.
2. Enter scenes late, leave early.
3. Scenes are about conflict. Characters must have a want that puts them in opposition to something.
4. Midpoint splits the second act into two tonally distinct halves.
5. Show, don’t tell.
6. Characters should have a distinct voice, you should be able to ID them just by their dialogue.
7. Dimensionalize characters by have them display different traits when they’re talking to other people.
8. Don’t write in variables. Communicate in concrete images that are easy to visual.
9. If a plot can take place in a shorter amount of time, it’s generally better.
10. Cut to the chase. It’s better to show characters doing something than have them talk about doing something.

People often are indignant to be reminded of these rules. Most of us have heard them dozens of times, it seems patronizing to hear them again. But they often bear repeating.

CompetencyMatrix

There are no advanced mistakes, only basic ones. If you’re having a problem with a story, the problem is going to be something that’s elemental and simple, not something that’s advanced and highbrow.

 

NEW KNOWLEDGE CAN TAKE MONTHS TO INGRAIN
You have finite attention. Concentrating on multiple  things at once will derail you. Practice one thing at a time, let it screw up your equilibrium, keep working at it until you can do it unconsciously. Writing skills flow in piece by piece. Good writing tends to come from a trained, natural reaction. More experienced writers have better trained natural reactions.

How to lose a reader in the first three pages.

A few days ago, /u/eddieswiss [+4] posted his script on reddit asking for opinions. I asked If I could post my notes and he graciously agreed. Eddieswiss is a promising writer and a nice person. He has the rare ability to take criticism, which is surprisingly rare. People who can take criticism develop faster than people who can’t.

Here’s the script . Read it if you like. This post only covers the first three pages.

Synopsis: DAMIEN (12) and RICHARD (11) play with toy swords on a playground. They have an active fantasy life and pretend to be medieval characters. Damien gets his new clothes muddy. He fears he’ll get in trouble. Richard’s mom calls Richard home.

Damien goes home, where he wakes up his MOTHER. His mother is mad at him for ruining his clothes.

Later, Damien has dinner with his mother and FATHER. Damien tells his dad about his fantasy adventures.

1. The formatting is a mess.

I could beat a dead horse, but that’s an easy fix. I’ve commented on the first line elsewhere[3] .

I’m overlooking the style mistakes, but they matter because they cause me, the reader, to withhold the benefit of the doubt. As you’ll see, that starts to matter.

2. Damien fears he’ll get in trouble because of his muddy clothes. The first thing he does when he gets home is wake up his mom.

This is a behavior mistake. We want our imagined characters to seem like they could be real people. We want the illusion of verisimilitude. It’s easy to lose that if you present information that doesn’t feel grounded.

When Damien finds his mom asleep on the couch, he’s lucked out. He’s off the hook. If he wants to avoid getting in trouble, he could throw his clothes in the wash and take a shower. Instead, he wakes her up immediately. That’s like a teen who sneaks out of the house intentionally waking up his parents on the way back.

You want to call out the unusual behavior so the script can justify it. Examples:

  • Damien could consider sneaking upstairs but then get guilty and wake his mom instead. That would say a lot about his character.
  • His mom could point out that he should have snuck upstairs, but be proud of him for being honest.
  • He could be honest because his character in his fantasies is honest.

As a reader I have no way of knowing if there’s a good reason for this behavior, or if the writer hasn’t thought things all the way through. As noted above, the script has already lost the benefit of the doubt. Had the script justified that character choice when it came up, it would have bought a lot of good will from me. Experienced writers anticipate reader hiccups. Developing writers don’t, which undercuts the reality of their choices.

You might argue that no one reads a script this closely, but some people do and you want to reward that attention. Even careless readers will subconsciously pick up on “artificial” behavior. Human beings are very good at recognizing human behavior, if something feels off it’s the behavorial equivalent of the uncanny valley: off-putting.

3. Where are we?

Is the playground connected to a school or a park? How does this connect to the world? Apparently the park is shouting distance from Richard’s mom, so is this a private park that’s connected to a neighborhood they both live in?

What’s the mood? Is it a sad, poor place that’s enlivened by Richard and Damien’s play? Is it a fun, happy place that would cheer up anyone?

Is it a nice playground, one of the modern kinds that’s impossible to get hurt on, or is it one of the cool old kinds, rickety wooden structures, tire swings hanging over gravel?

What’s the climate? Arizona in the summer? Honolulu in the fall? The season matters because there’s mud on the ground. I’d like the context. It’d cost a single line to put in and should be there before description of the characters’ wardrobes.

4. The age of the kids raises some questions.

There’s no specificity to the dialogue, you could make the characters 8 and it’d still work. Damien (12) is the hero of this script, so the inability to write specific dialogue for him is a bad sign, implying that the story is framed around a character that the author doesn’t have a firm handle on.

The age of the kids themselves isn’t arbitrary – it’s actually a defining characteristic. Consider: Damien and Richard are 12-year-old boys. It’s after school, it’s circa 2014, and rather than play video games, smoke cigarettes or talk about girls, they’re playing KINGDOM. They’re in a public place near a neighborhood. That makes them either very brave or very oblivious. Even if they are super-geeks, they’re at an age where non-conformity is mocked.

If this happened in real life, some 13-year-old on a bike might come by and call them a gay slur, or some mean teenagers might beat them up. Showing normal kids will highlight a cultural context for the kids. I’d be willing to give the script the benefit of the doubt, but as stated, it lost that on the first line.

5. The game the kids play raises a lot of questions.

They’re not just goofing around with swords, they’re playing Kingdom. I want to know more about that. You might be saying, “Jesus Christ cynicallad, let this go! It’s just a kid’s game!” But I won’t, because this really matters.

The stated logline is: A boy creates a fantasy world to deal with his cancer. I can only assume that we’re starting with this scene to show off the fact that Damien is imaginative. I’m fine with that, but you need to make sure that his imagination is grounded in reality.

1) The first line implies that the guys have swords they MADE. That implies that at some point they got together, busted out the Elmer’s glue and made swords so they could LARP on the playground. That’s a very different kind of geek than someone who finds a couple tubes in the trash and fucks around with them.

The best way to show what these swords mean to the characters is to show what they do with them after the game. If they throw them into a dumpster with a bunch of other tubes, that says one thing. If they take them home, that says another. If they put them in special scabbards which are made out of Tyvek paper and sequins, that says even more. Specificity is your friend. This is an easy opportunity to illuminate character through behavior.

2) This is the big one: Damien will be king SOMEDAY.

At first I thought the kids were just fooling around. But then on page three, Damien says he’ll be king someday, it says something about the game – either there are actual rules, which we’re not privy too, or Richard is really keeping Damien down, or Damien is so beta that he can’t even assert himself as a king. Any of these are great, but it’d be great if that was explored a little more. Let me see the kids having fun. More than the rules, I want to see HOW they play and what this game means to them. I also want to know how to play KINGDOM. Obviously, I don’t need an annotated rule book, but I want some sense of how it’s played, what it means to the kids.

3) How smart are these kids? I remember being a 12-year-old kid who was super into dungeons and dragons. I wouldn’t have been as “out” about it as these kids are, but kids like this do exist. That being said, the kids like that who cared enough about medieval times to pretend to be knights would probably know that a lowly knight would be unlikely to be in the line of royal succession. Are they ignorant dopes, or budding novelists who have a Jon Snow-like backstory for this Sir Damien character? Again, specifics create behavior, which builds character.

6. Mystery milk

The two CHILDREN are now sitting on a WOODEN BENCH and drinking from CARTONS of CHOCOLATE MILK. The both of them are covered in dirt from head to toe

Wait, where the hell did this milk come from? Am I to understand that they went out from home with nothing but their cardboard swords and cartons of milk, which they then left unrefrigerated for the X amount of time it takes to play Kingdom, and then, parched, went for some delicious, room temperature chocolate milk?

It’s specifically called a carton of milk, cartons have to be refrigerated (there are other kinds that don’t). This milk is one of the many things that takes me out of the reality of the scene and makes me doubt the construction of the universe on the first page. Again, this shows the specificity of location – if it’s winter time, you might have a nice shot of two milks sitting in a snow bank. That would at least make the world feel lived in.

In reality, though, the milk drinking scene is unnecessary. It’d be better to see more of the game of Kingdom and have mom call out just as the imagined game reaches its dramatic apex.

IN CLOSING

The following examples should give you an idea of the gaps in logic that suggest that the writer doesn’t fully have a grasp on the words he’s putting down. This might not register consciously, but it does register subconsciously and if a reader has lingering questions, they’re not fully focusing on your script.

At the end of the day, you’re either careful writing your script or you’re not. If you’re not going to take care in expressing things cleanly and accurately, why should the reader invest time in carefully reading your script?

How to lose a reader on the first line of a script.

DISCLAIMER: I take script confidentiality incredibly seriously. I will never talk about the specifics of someone else’s script to anyone else because I’m being asked for discretion as much as my opinion. The one exception is if someone posts a screenplay in a public forum like Reddit to solicit free opinions. In that case, I’m delighted to have the opportunity for a teachable moment.

                                              Fade in:

EXT. PLAYGROUND -- AFTERNOON
Two very YOUNG BOYS are seen playing around various bits of the PLAYGROUND. They’re playing war and swinging SWORDS made of TOILET PAPER ROLLS around.

I’m going to ignore the right justified FADE IN*: and discuss the first scene description/action line about the two young boys.

I actually like the implied opening IMAGE of this script, it’s vivid and relates to the theme. my problem is chiefly with the way the line is WORDED because the verbiage makes it harder to see the image, not easier.

Your first line is a first impression. As a reader, all my brain wants to do is convert the written line into a mental picture so I can imagine stuff happening, and yet the language in this line precludes me from doing that.

  • I have no idea what a VERY YOUNG BOY is. Why not just tell me their age?
  • “Are seen” is unnecessary here. Implicitly, everything in scene description is seen.
  • What are various bits of a playground? Are we starting with a montage? Even if it was, why not just tell me they’re in the sandbox? Or by the swings? Or on the monkey bars? Your first sentence is filled with two variables. I don’t want to think in variables. I want to be presented with a picture. Don’t trust the reader to imagine. Make them see what you want to see.
  • What is playing war? Is that a different game from swinging around a fake sword? If it’s not, why include it at all?
  • How does one you make a sword out of toilet paper rolls? I’m trying and failing to imagine how you could connect toilet paper rolls in a way that would enable a kid to swing it around. I guess you could glue them to a stick, but then why not just use a stick. Did the writer mean a cardboard tube, like you’d ship a poster in?

The toilet paper roll sword is me being pedantic, but it’s an example of a line that raises questions. Details are great, but you don’t want the details to be confusing. If the boys are swinging cardboard swords, I’ll trust that they’re sturdy enough to swing. If the boys are swinging swords made out of macaroni/kitten whiskers/or human sadness, I’m going to have some questions.

You don’t want the reader to have questions this fundamental, especially not on the first line. You want them paying close attention, and they can’t do that if a lack of clear details is nagging at their subconscious.

It’s entirely possible that the remainder of the script is brilliant, but the first line doesn’t augur well for that possibility because the vague writing suggests that he hasn’t looked at the form from the point of view of another human being who isn’t, y’know, the writer. That’s a bad sign, because it’s a failure of imagination (the reader is important, consider their needs and POV).

The lines waste a first impression. Writing is a seduction. You want to hook the reader with your first line and keep them hooked till the end. First impressions matter, you don’t start a stirring speech with the word “Um…” The passage here communicates that they don’t know that or don’t care, neither answer gives me confidence in there wherewithal to keep me entertained for the next 100 pages.

Professional readers will grimly read the entirety of a script because it’s their job. Even execs might give it a couple pages before they toss it aside. But a weak first line is like the guy who shows up to a date with spinach in his teeth – he can overcome that misstep, but he hasn’t put himself in a great position to succeed.

Write strong first lines that show your confidence and skill. Ably communicate a clear picture and mood. It’s much easier and it positions you for success.

* Footnote:

I hate the fade in, too. It’s formatted like a transition, but now I’m running through my memory trying to remember if there’s any rules on whether that’s supposed to be left justified or right justified.

And you know what, it doesn’t matter. Someone’s going to chime in with a screed about how there are no rules. But what does matter is it’s a line that doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t matter if we fade in, start with a picture, or hear the kids playing over black. It’s an arbitrary choice so why are you making me read it? It’s like starting a stirring speech with a phlegm-clearing cough.

An outline is a reality check.

I’m skeptical of people who are too vocal about never outlining. For every one person who doesn’t need to outline, there are a hundred that do.

Some people seem to see any form out outlining as a form of hackery or cheating. Breaking down a story into beats? Cheating. Identifying a premise and then identifying sequences that flow from that premise? Cheating. Using three act structure? Cheating.

While it’s true that some scripts flow fully formed in a bout of gorgeous inspiration, not all scripts do. While some scripts are discovered in the process of the writing, not all are. Outlines, beats, act structures are all just tools that are available to us. They’re not magic cure-alls, but a screenwriter should know his or her way around them.

One of the benefits of my coaching practice is that I get to see the work habits of a variety of different writers.

The majority of beginning writers write both sloppily and slowly. They put off outlining and end up with scripts that are conceptually anemic, lacking an involving story or fun specifics. That would be fine if they used a first draft as a de facto outline, but many times they don’t. They produce a glut of content, but never get around to organizing it in any meaningful way. Then they proceed to approach a rewrite without any working knowledge of structure, and that compounds the problem.

If someone can’t tell their story in 200 words , they probably can’t tell their story at all, because they haven’t fully recognized the core mechanics that move and shape their story.

People don’t outline perfectly, nor should they. Most people outline a little, then write, then re-outline, then finish writing, then outline what they’ve written, then adapt that outline for another draft. That’s perfectly fine, indeed, a lot of the art that’s in a screenplay is discovered in these seeming inefficiencies.

Outlining helps provide proof of concept in the initial phases of pre-writing, and it provides a road map in the throes of actual composition. When a draft is finished, it’s useful to re-outline, to inventory what’s there so you have a scale model of your script that makes planning the rewrite easier.

Not everyone needs to outline, but my feeling is a lot of the people who say they don’t need to outline might improve their writing by applying outlining techniques at various phases of development.

The difference between world-building and story:

  1. The world of Star Wars has planets and aliens and mythology. You could tell any number of stories in the Star Wars Universe, as evidenced by all the sequel and spin off novels that exist.
  2. The story of Star Wars is what’s portable, that has nothing to do with the setting. Here are some terrible examples.

Luke Smith is an orphan in the Old West. One day, he meets a messenger, looking for Old Ben Kennuck, a grizzled veteran. He teams up with Old Ben to save Cherokee Princess Leia from Dark Vic, a deadly gunslinger.

Ryuko Sukaiwaa is an orphan in Samurai times. He meets a messenger looking for Kenobi-sensi, who turns out to be a missing imperial guard. He and Kenobi team up to save the Emperor’s daughter Reiya from Daimyo Abayitsu, an evil samurai lord.

You get the idea.

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 translate the old west specifics into something that fixes your actual plot.

We’re not writing RPG sourcebooks here, the most detailed fictional world is meaningless if you don’t tie it to an involving and universal story. Obviously some world building is good, but you don’t want so much that it chokes out the story part of your screenplay.

Three act structure doesn’t exist, and yet it’s still helpful.

There are four basic elements in screenwriting. You can use them to achieve any story.

  1. Character attribution
  2. Dialogue
  3. Scene Headings
  4. Action description

There are also transitions, and parentheticals, etc. They exist, but one could also go an entire career without ever actually using one. Read here for more on this idea.

Those are the things that literally exist in screenplays. Anything beyond that isn’t reality, it’s a model of reality. This is a semantic nuance that has led to untold hours of hurt feelings and wasted time.

Acts, sequences, etc are theories, they don’t literally exist.

We might choose to see things like beats of a scene, character arcs, acts, sequences, inciting incidents, or any number of other crap, but those are all optional – models of reality, not reality of itself. Even if someone deliberately wrote a script to be a perfect model of three act structure, someone else will see it as an illustration of five act structure, two act structure, hero’s journey, or whatever else is popular.

RELATED: A basic three act structure.

Some will point out that act breaks actually exist in TV scripts, as well as character lists and a few other things. They are correct, but we’re talking about feature film scripts here. I hope no one will take it amiss if I suggest that they avoid act breaks in features because features don’t commonly have act breaks, so it looks amateurish when someone includes them.

The same script could be broken down into three, four, five or seven acts and still be be the exact same story. Even three act structure has a dozen different flavors, they all say about the same thing.

Someone might deliberately write a feature screenplay using a 2 act model. Despite this, someone who’s entrenched in a three act paradigm will find a way to break it down into three acts. Someone who’s into five act structure will do the same. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Use whatever works for you, but don’t be surprised if someone has a different point of view on it. Ideally, your approach is sturdy enough to help you, but flexible enough to allow you to share ideas with other people.

WAIT, IF ACTS DON’T EXIST, WHY DO YOU SPEND SO MUCH TIME TALKING ABOUT THEM?

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

Though they don’t literally exist, they are useful thought structures that sometimes aid in crafting and analyzing material. Some people use them, some don’t

The three act structure is a model of reality, not reality itself. The map is not the terrain[1] . That being said, it’s a useful model.

I talk in three act structure[2] because it’s how I learned, because I like it, and because in my experience it facilitates communication more often than it hinders it. It’s an approach, one of many, good as any, better than most.

There are many good reasons to think in terms of beats and acts and the like, but like any approach there are weaknesses behind the strength. It’s always useful to remember that there is no one right way to write a screenplay, but that there are many approaches, and many of them have value.