Welcome to my site.

Getting started copy:

I’m a WGA writer with 10 years of experience in the business.

I like to blog about writing. My most popular articles are about improv for screenwriters and the premise test.

I believe writing should be entertaining and conceptually specific.

If you’re not sure where to start,  buy the first time client special – a read, with notes + half hour follow up call. It’s a great value, just $60. If interested, send paypal and PDF to mattjlazarus@gmail.com.

Some useful quotes on premise

“A play should have one action that it follows, with minimal subplots” The Poetics by Aristotle (1)

“A man sits in his workshop, busy with an invention of wheels and springs. You ask him what the gadget is, what it is meant to do. He looks at you confidingly and whispers: “I really don’t know.” – The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri

“Every screenplay has a subject – It is what the story is about.” Screenplay by Syd Field

“If you can’t tell me about it in one quick line, buddy I’m onto something else” Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Premise Test examples

Writing tends to start with a overall premise. Because writing can’t be arbitrary, you’re going to want to lock down what you’re going to be writing about, the the theme you’re going to be exploring, and you’re going to want to have some sense of how you’re going to make it interesting.

Hence the premise test: An (ADJECTIVE) (ARCHETYPE) must (GOAL) or else (STAKES by (DOING) and learns (THEME) . 

Hypothetical Original Example: A cowardly knight must save a spoiled prince from a dragon, or else the realm will fall into war. He must cross the bleak desert, tame a flock of eagles, and fight through a fraternity of ogres. He overcomes his cowardice and learns that the measure of a man is in his deeds, not his words.

Commercial example (Speed) A driven cop is trapped on a speeding bus that will explode if it slows below 50 MPH. He must find a way to disarm the bomb, save the passengers, and stop the madman and learns little, but is rewarded for his grit and for sticking to his guns. Good conquers evil.

Art House Example (Boyhood) A young boy with a poetic soul must navigate through his complicated boyhood, or else lose his individuality. We follow him through formative events that occur over 12 years of his life, and in the the process, he learns how to trust himself and be self sufficient.

The more complete your “doing” section is, the more robust your movie idea. Take a look at these examples. If you didn’t know what they were, you wouldn’t be sold on them. Not until the visceral details of the second act were communicated to you.

A self destructive piano genius must resolve his issues re his estranged father or else continue his downward spiral. He does this by (events of the movie) and learns that his efforts to normalize or resolve his life are doomed to fail. Hence he continues his drifter lifestyle. (Five Easy Pieces)

A desperate man robs a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation, but a hostage situation ensues. He must escape it or else go to jail. He does this by (events of the movie). He fails, and learns that his failings (carelessness and desperation) have doomed him in crime just as they’ve doomed him in all other areas of his life. (Dog Day Afternoon)

A group of criminals (and one undercover cop) pull off a robbery, but have to hide from the heat. They quickly turn on each other and do (events of the movie) in the process leaning that their line of work precludes trust. (Reservoir Dogs).

STRAY NOTES

  • While it’s true that some premises are only discovered in the course of writing and revising, you should still start your script with at least an inkling of what the main character is going to spend the most time doing. If you have trouble doing this in the preliminary stages, you’re going to have even more trouble doing it after you’ve spent three months committing to a draft.
  • Here’s an example of the premise test in action.
  • If you’re wondering how to apply this to a TV series, you should apply it to the first season as a whole.

Prototype e-book: 3 act structure.

Note: I’ve been meaning to write an ebook for a while, but I’ve had trouble committing to any one thing. As an experiment, I’m playing with linking together a series of articles I’ve already written. This is a sample introduction I wrote.


I both love and hate the three act structure. I like it as a useful framework to hang ideas on. I hate the flame wars that it invites. Those that really could benefit from it seem almost pathologically averse from it, the people that embrace it tend to embrace it way too hard (if you’ve ever had a conversation with a Linux user, you know what I’m talking about).

To me, the three act structure is a natural prerequisite to taxonomy, thought experiments, and archetypal assumptions. There is so much shit you can do once you playfully yes-and three act structure and hack the shit out of it, but it always tends to end up in a mac vs pc flamewar which depresses me.

The three act structure is a way to structure a story. It doesn’t apply to every story, but it’s also way better than nothing. I feel like most books on the subject have a tone of implied authority that rubs a lot of people the wrong way. I see the 3 act structure as a tool. If you want to cut wood, you could use a jigsaw, circular saw, reciprocating saw, miter saw, or a hand saw. There’s no best way, but it’s best to have access to all of them, so you have the right tool for the right job.


POSTEL’S LAW: Be conservative with what you accept about yourself, liberal in what you accept in others.


Most three act debates go like this:

GUY A: People have problems with the second act.
GUY B: The three act structure is bullshit. It’s hacks like you that are ruining Hollywood with your formula crap.What Guy A probably meant to say is, “In my humble experience, a lot of scripts seem to use the three act structure without actually understanding it. This problem might be ameliorated by a greater understanding of the paradigm, particularly how the second act works.

What Guy B probably means is, “In my humble experience, many people miss the point and cling to three act structure and received wisdom at the at the expense of real understanding. Can you confirm to me that you aren’t one of those.”

And it’d be nice if we lived in that world. But also annoying. And kind of boring. The more accurate you make a statement , the less charismatic it becomes.

All communication is inaccurate because all communication is an oversimplification. Without the benefit of the doubt, we are lost. There’s always a more accurate way to say something.


Anyway, onwards to content. The meat of this book began in 2014, with a rant posted on reddit.

Most Second Acts Suck

https://thestorycoach.net/2014/04/03/most-second-acts-suck-heres-a-tip-on-how-to-fix-that/

Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities

Could this really happen?” is a boring question and yields boring work. The better question is “Can I make this unlikely thing feel psychologically plausible.”

Example: here are two unusual stories.

  1. Archaelogists unearth a magic wand that turns sand to gold. The nations of the world go to war to claim it.
  2. A man gets mugged. He punches out his assailant. The assailant is so impressed, he gets a gender reassignment and becomes the man’s wife.

Of the two, which one is harder to buy on a narrative level? Nearly everyone says two. On the surface, this is odd because scenario one is magical fantasy and scenario two is theoretically plausible. And yet #2 is the one that will raise more questions, and hence feel more implausible unless properly framed and justified.

This is a useful illustration of suspension of disbelief. Audiences tend to willingly suspend their disbelief for fantastical conceits, but not when their notion of how human behavior works.

Example one feels like a fantasy story by dint of the words “magic wand.” Most people will think, okay, genre stuff, I get that, let’s see where that goes. The subsequent war makes sense because that sounds like the kind of thing nations would go to war over. Most people aren’t going to ask engineer-level questions as to how the magic works, those that do are probably unlikely to get swept up in the story regardless.

Example two is more plausible on one level, but more implausible on another. If someone told me this story, I’d have a ton of questions.

  1. Did the assailant always want to be a girl? Was he just looking for the right fellow?
  2. How soon after getting punched did he have his sex change? Did he have a standing appointment?
  3. What was your first date like? Did you know he was the assailant at first, or did she build up to that?
  4. Knowing all this, why did you marry the assailant? Do you identify as straight?
  5. What’s your sex life like?
  6. Do you want children? Are you going to adopt?

Etc.

Keeping things plausible doesn’t mean that you’re restricted to dull or familiar situations. Truth is stranger than fiction. We live in a world where weird stuff happens every day. That said, part of writing is anticipating the audience, anticipating what will make them say “what the hell?” If someone wrote this story and treated example two as a mundane situation that required zero explanation, I’d question whether they empathized with the audience well enough to tell a good story.

On a meta level, if you got notes on this, most readers would say “I don’t see why assailant did this.” It’s usually best to anticipate this question and answer it before people realize it’s bothering them.

If the man or assailant had a friend to ask thes questions, if they called it out themselves, then they could justify why they did these things in a way that makes the seemingly odd behavior as understandable, romantic, even heroic.

You can do anything in a story, you can justify anything. But you can’t justify if you can’t anticipate what people find plausible and what requires further explanation.

Note: The title comes from a quote by Aristotle, an early hack writing guru who was passionate about three act structure and never wrote a play. 

Scripts need a rooting interest. You can create this by setting up character, stakes, and a goal by the end of the first act.

Picture this: a vengeful god comes down from heaven and tells you that you have 24 hours to kill an evil man, or you’ll die. You’re allowed to ask one question.

If you’ve got any sense, you’ll use that question to ask some variation on the following: “What counts as an evil man?” (1) It’s hard to do something if you don’t have the faintest idea of what you’re doing.

By the same token, it’s hard to remain invested in a story if you have no idea what you’re rooting for.

If a first act doesn’t set up the character, goal, and the stakes, it’s not doing what a first act should do. You need all for rooting interest:

  1. Character – who they are, why we like them (or relate to them or otherwise engage with them), what they want out of the world.
  2. Goal – “Make the world a better place” is an abstract goal. “Make the world a better place by opening an animal shelter” is a more concrete one. It’s hard to imagine what “a better place” looks like, everyone will have a different idea. It’s easy to imagine an animal shelter opening it’s doors.
  3. Stakes – Opening an animal shelter is easy if you have limitless money and permits. It’s hard if you’re risking everything and could lose your house if you fail. The end of the first act usually has the character commit to a plan, something they can’t take back. The die is cast. Stakes can change, evolve, or rise, but you need some proto-stakes at the end of the first act, otherwise it’ll feel like the character doesn’t care about what’s going on.

Once you have a character the audience likes, a sense of stakes, and a clear goal, you have a rooting interest. Rooting interest makes a script easy to follow because it attaches narrative weight to everything in the second act. If the character needs to kill a dragon, he’s winning every time he gets closer to the dragon, losing everytime he gets further away from it (2). Without that rooting interest, it’s all just incident: pedestrian, plodding, arbitrary, confusing.

Most scripts fail in the first act because writers are gunshy about commiting to simple things like characters, goals, and stakes. Don’t be afraid to be clear. You’ll need that clarity to help the audience enjoy, appreciate and understand your script.

RELATED: The Premise Test

NOTES

(1) The smart asses out there are already thinking of their witty subversions of the scenario, coming up with a clever way out of the scenario, or mounting some elaborate theological explanation of why the scenario is impossible. Part of playing along means accepting scenarios in the spirit they’re offered.

(2) Dramatic plotting in a nutshell – one step forward, two steps back.

Three simple, useful things about screenwriting

These aren’t dogma, they’re just some guidelines I find generally useful, good as any, better than most.

ONE:
Screenplays are models of movies. Movies are entertainment. Therefore, screenplays ought to be entertaining. Or, in human terms, movies ought to engage emotionally and viscerally, sweep people up in narrative, transport them away from an oft-disappointing and humdrum existence. If a screenplay is entertaining, it will have entertainment value. We could call this “joy,” “magic,” or whatever you’d like. I prefer entertainment value because it says exactly what I mean.

TWO:
All good stories have some kind of entertainment value, but not all stories create the same kind of entertainment. Let’s call this genre. Comedies amuse. Thrillers thrill. Horror stories horrify. Pornograpy pornographizes. Action movies create entertainment via action scenes. Musicals create entertainment through musical numbers. Drama creates entertainment through character and keen observation of the human condition. When you write a story, you implicitly promise it will entertain. Genre suggests the kind of entertainment it will provide.

RELATED: https://thestorycoach.net/2014/10/23/simplifying-genre/[1]

THREE:
Stories are about something, most can be boiled down to some form of “who/what/where.”

You want the entertaining moments to be conceptually specific. Premise is your friend – if a premise is working, the movie is working. If you put in something that’s not related to the core concept, you’ll have to work twice as hard.

If you do a story about a werewolf cop, the story is conceptually specific whenever his werewolfing is complicated by his policing. If the vast majority of the entertaining scenes are about something else, say the werewolf cops tortured relationship with his father, or a subplot involving his learning disabled daughter’s quest to get mainstreamed by the school district, then the story wastes a premise and feels misframed and misaimed.

Not every scene in a movie needs to be conceptually specific, you’ll have subplots, breaks from the action, etc, but most scenes needs to relate to the premise, otherwise I’m not sure why the premise is there.