When you get a logic note, don’t fight it. Have a character ask the question and answer it (or Justification)

A big part of writing is justification: anticipating common sense logic notes, asking them yourself in the script, and creating a plausible explanation

This maintains willing suspension of disbelief, and creates specifics of character that ends up paying off later. When people don’t get things, they’re not flawed or bad, they’re “calling out” a logical issue that you might have overlooked.

  • Why did he give up the gun?
  • Why did she go back to him?
  • Why would the town turn on the kids after they saved it?

Improv made me realize the best way to do this was to take the executive’s question, put it in a character’s mouth, and then give the defense I would give in the room. It always works. Sometimes we get non justifications (lampshade hanging), sometimes the justifications are lousy, but scripts get credit for anticipating the question that the audience was about to have.

  • Why did the hero give up the gun? Because he can’t bring himself to kill a fellow cop (I should probably seed that through act 1 and 2).
  • Why did she go back to him? Because of the fucking awesome “I’m sorry” speech I’m about to write for the abusive husband (you wouldn’t want to go with ’cause she’s dumb,’ which might cause the audience to detach from the character completely).
  • Why would a man marry a dolphin? Because they echo locate and thus are good listeners.

The really hard part is anticipating the common sense, zeitgeist, politics, and quirks of the average audience. Some people are really open and judging any idea as flawed or false is hard for them. Some people lack empathy and think every thinks like them. Some people spend pages justifying obvious things, like why a mother would run into a building to save her kids.

That’s why outside feedback is great. When people have notes, most of the time they’re reacting to a moment where the logic didn’t scan. Calling out and justifying is a powerful tool, you get better at it just by having a term for it, and you get good at it by putting it into practice.

Always write as if someone will be picturing it visually. Most people do.

A screenplay is a de facto movie and anything presented will eventually have to be literally photographed (or said.)

Understanding why this works lends insight into human beings, your target audience. I learned this when I was taking an acting class. The teacher was stressing a point on how we should invest words with meaning. For some reason, he used this example:

“When I say dog, you’re picturing a dog. It may be a chihuahua or dalmation, but it’s a dog.” I’ve heard a version of this from a variety of acting teachers and improv teachers. It’s held to be true, and in most cases it is.

But I wasn’t picturing a dog. I was thinking of the word. Yes, canis canis, man’s best friend was hovering in my thoughts, but so was the verb, it dogs my thoughts, or the 50s slang, my dogs are barking.

When I asked him about this, he didn’t seem to be receptive to it’s possible truth or the implications. Some people are incurious.

A few years later, I read a memory book, which talked about visual pictures. They used an example like this to show how images can be subverted in interesting ways:

“A fellow hears a noise so he goes to his closet and grabs a bat. The bat flaps it’s wings and flies away.”

The implication was that most people will picture a wooden bat, then see it sprout wings in a confusing, absurd way, and then realize that it’s an animal bat and see that image instead. I didn’t. I was thinking about the word. “Oh yeah, they sound a like. I see what you did there.” I was getting a similar experience from language, but not the one the author expected me to have.

So I did more research and found that while most people experience language in an entirely visual way, some do not. There exist a rare subset of people who can’t form mental pictures at all. I’m not quite that bad, but I’d rate my ability to form mental pictures as lower than the average bear. Subpar. Learning how my essential truth was different than the general audiences helped me tailor my language in a way that communicated more effectively.

It may be that you can’t form visual images. Neat. You compensate for this by being better at abstract thought and narrative logic. It may be that you have perfect visual recall. Neat. Most people don’t. Understanding and having a good estimate as to what the average audience member needs to envision will help you clean up your scene description and to focus on the details that are interesting and essential. essential details.

Understanding where you fall on the spectrum helps you understand yourself, the audience, writing, communication and everything.

The Four Basic Elements of Screenwriting

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

[1] Scene Headings
[2] Scene description/Action
[3] Character attribution
[4] Dialogue

4 Elements

[5] Transitions
[6] Parenthetical
[7] SFX, VFX, etc. (you really don’t need to use these)
[8] Author’s note (again, use sparingly.

More elements

You don’t really need transitions, but they’re nice to have now and then. You can insert lots of stuff into a script, but in point of fact, you could accomplish any storytelling effect with the main four.

Some will argue that a screenplay doesn’t necessarily need dialogue, dialogue attribution or even characters. Someone might argue that you could theoretically convey everything you need to convey in a screenplay with all dialogue and no action (I have actually read a script like that). While these arguments might technically be right, I hope you’ll join me in ignoring them.

So there are four main elements in screenwriting and these “primatives” can be used to accomplish anything in the art form. And it’s easy, too. The .jpg examples cited here are inarguably a screenplay. They have all the parts, and it’s formatted correctly (for a short, anyway).

And yet, it’s a terrible screenplay. It’s boring, nothing happens, and it’s not fun to read. And that’s the fun/horror of screenwriting. The form takes a minute to learn, a lifetime to master. It’s all about doing the basics of screenwriting, but using them to create a story that another person might find entertaining.

But how do we do this? Good question. Read on.

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.

The value of straight answers pt. 2

This is a common conversation for people who work in showbiz:

“Hey man, I heard you lost your job.”

“Yeah, between things right now. If you have any leads?”

“Do you have the UTA job list? I’ll send it to you.”

“Gee, thanks.”

Offering up the job list is literally the least you can do when you can’t actually help someone. The job list is like a metaphor for 90% of the screenwriting advice I see online.

The UTA job list is a list that the United Talent Agency sends out with open positions at entertainment companies. It gets passed around to everyone, and their brother. If you list a “assistant position” at a “boutique talent agency” you will get hundreds of responses.

The list is an illustration of help that represents the least possible effort on the part of the helper while still being marginally better than useless.

The jobless person is really hoping to hear something like, “Hey, you’re my friend. There’s an opening in the MP lit department at my uncle’s company. I’ll set you up with an interview.”

The “helper” is unable or unwilling to offer that kind of assistance, they want to change the subject as quickly as possible while still trying to maintain the appearance of being helpful in case they ever need a favor from the job seeker down the road.

It’s a neat illustration of human nature. No one likes to admit being powerless. It’s why dads struggle mightily to offer relevant showbiz advice, it’s why people say “I’ll see what I can do” instead of “I can’t help you,” it’s why people say that the only way to learn screenwriting is to read screenplays.

Beginners want basic answers, but they rarely get them. If someone asks a question about something like “how many acts should be in my screenplay?” or even “what is a act?” they’ll get 2-3 actual answers and 12 more about how they should think outside the box, not use paint by numbers strategies, how they should “just have fun,” “just write,” or something else in that vein.

The ability to give straight answers is a useful indicator of whether someone knows what they’re talking about. The ability to give answers in someone else’s paradigm is also a good indicator. A dumb atheist can’t answer any questions about the bible. A smart atheist can, and uses their knowledge of the text to buttress their credibility as a serious thinker.

Whether asking for advice or giving it, remember that the best advice is straightforward, direct and actionable. It’s easy to answer a question about screenwriting books by saying they’re all bad, it’s infinitely better to respect the question, cite specific screenwriting books, and then add your own two cents only if you absolutely can’t help it.

It’s easier to write every day if you get organized first.

People say that the secret to screenwriting is to “just write.” It’s sound advice, but it’s also convenient advice. It’s right up there with “just be yourself,” “have fun with it,” and “go with your gut,” advice that’s got a grain of truth in it, but that’s also frequently used by lazy people who don’t want to put much thought into the question you’ve asked.

So, while I agree with the advice of “write every day,” I like breaking it down a few steps further.

If you’re going to write every day, you need two things: a place to write, and a place to put the writing you do.

The absolute easiest place to put your writing is in a flexible catchall like Evernote. I like evernote because it’s searchable and flexible, and if you’re ever super bored, you can spend a day curating the ideas that you’ve stored there. But honestly, anything that’s searchable will work. In the age of modern computing, you can save all your documents to one folder and use your computer’s search feature to find keywords or hashtags if you ever want to tie all your fight scenes together.

The other thing you’re going to to need is a place to write. Some writers like to take their laptop out to a Starbucks. If that works for you, more power to you. But most writers have a desk or a workspace. Most beginning writers don’t use this space well. Your desk is your physical locus of control for your projects, the cockpit you sit in as you navigate your craft deep into the subconscious. If you’re using your desk as a big horizontal shelf, it’s not serving it’s intended purpose.

So if you’re stuck on writing every day, spend a day getting organized. Clean everything off your desk, keep it clear so you have a nice clean space to mess up with all the keystrokes, post-its and scrawling you’re going to make in the service of creativity. Get your notes off your gmail drafts, your iNotes, and the post-its on your mirror and put them all into a place that is easy to search.

If you’re serious about writing, you’re going to spend every day of the rest of your life doing it. Make sure you carve out enough space to make that task easy.

Related .