There’s Something Deeper Going On…

According to William Indick, author of Psychology for Screenwriters, “film is an extremely powerful psychological force.” If this is true, then we don’t just go to the movies to be entertained. There is something deeper going on.

There is nothing like a film that jolts your emotions. Whether you are moved to tears, or nearly fallout on the floor laughing, when your reactions to a story are vivid, you will remember the story long after you’ve digested the popcorn and moved on with life; it is indelible. But lasting connections do not just happen, especially in works of literature or in film. It is the result of calculated writing, which includes an understanding of human behavior and the relationship between conflict and human emotion.

Thank you screenwriter J.V. Hart and WriterDuet creator/software developer Guy Goldstein for creating a new story-mapping tool kit for screenwriters, which not only focuses on the plot, but the emotional journey of your characters.

I am excited to see how the collaborative efforts of these two masterminds will pay off!  I have used WriterDuet since it was first launched a few years ago, and I continue to stay amazed.  Screenwriter J.V. Hart has certainly seen his share of success with screenplays like:  Hook, Dracula, Tuck Everlasting, Muppet Treasure Island,  and Contact, and while HartChart is not new, it’s going live,  and I can hardly wait until its launching at the Austin Film Festival in October!

Details and Sign-Up here:  HartChart

What happened?

I have been sitting at my desk working on writing for 2 straight days.  Of course, I slept and ate, but you get the idea.

Anyway… I actually started writing this post when the movie Noah came out, which was back in March.  I haven’t had a minute to work on this blog, or any other blog.  Life can get very busy.

So, back in March (the week Noah came out), I decided to see the latest and greatest version — you know, Noah, take two!

There’s no denying that Darren Aronofsky’s Bible epic was well-acted.  How do you write a bad review about Russell Crowe.  It doesn’t happen too often. He’s a great actor, and he played the part of Noah well.  That doesn’t mean that I agree with the way Noah’s character was written, because I found it oddly interpreted, but Crowe performed well. He, which is not surprising, really takes on the roll. Most all of the other characters were underdeveloped, and that is another issue in my estimation. Noah himself definitely gets top billing, and somewhat holds the film together.  He is in a constant state of revision, flitting between hero to anti-hero almost overnight, when he becomes quite obsessed with the idea that “all humanity,” including his family have entirely missed the mark, will be punished and completely destroyed.  Guess he figures he’ll just continue where God leaves off.  He will stop at nothing to see that end accomplished too, even if it means destroying one of his kids, and much like Moses, sacrificing one of his own (his sons newborn twins).  His poor wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), is beside herself, and rightly so. Even more interesting is the antagonist that was added to the story.  Tubal-Cain, Noah’s macho-macho man rival defines the word narcissist. It actually becomes almost comical when he manages to break through the middle of the arch and camp out with the animals as a stowaway, and then winning Noah’s son over for a time.  I suppose Aronofsky felt the storyline needed some spicing up with the addition of this character and crazy sub-plot, but in no way does this deliver or even make sense.

It’s certainly easy to understand why the Christian community didn’t respond favorably to Noah.  It was not even close to accurate — at least, according to the bible.  It should be noted, that Noah is a “lose” adaptation, and often times adaptations are changed.  However, because Aronofsky makes so many changes, and ads so much fantasy, it’s past the point of believable, and moves into being just plain weird. From the mystical, expanding earth that moves through the audience through time in an instant, to the “Watchers,” the dark, sci-fi creatures that sound like Darth Vader remnants, it leaves one with the feeling that they are on an exhausting adventure ride at Disneyland. Even popcorn didn’t appease.

No doubt, the ark is impressive, and watching every creature surge toward the arch two by two, is fairly entertaining. Aronofsky doesn’t just use biblical text as his source; there is quite a potpourri from various religions, which includes: pre-Christian paganism, the Quran, Greek mythology, the Big Bang theory, and other literary works.  Also, I don’t think Noah and his famiglia were sporting English accents either, and most all of the main characters seemed to miss out on the fact that this takes place pre Great Britain (haha, actually pre-much of anything!).

In addition to the screenplay having poorly developed characters, Aronofsky taking near-laughable creative liberties, and a conglomeration of elements (as if pulled out of a hat), this action, sci-fi, epic adventure was grossly over-written.  By the end of this big screen fiasco, I found myself sitting in the darkened theater shaking my head and asking myself, “What happened?”

Russell Crowe as Noah



Lord of the Rings?  Star Wars?  There was certainly the hint of Yoda.


Plotting your way to a compelling screenplay

Plotting your way to a compelling screenplay

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be teaching a webinar on PLOT for The Writers Store on December 18 from 1:00 – 4:00 (Pacific Standard Time).


Screenwriting structure can be daunting to the best of writers if the elements are not properly understood.  In fact, screenwriting has more structure than any other form of creative writing, with the exception of certain styles of poetry.  While each element is vital to the art of screenwriting, plot is probably the most misunderstood of all. It is not story.  

Even though we can isolate each element of structure, and compartmentalize how they function in a script, this is not about a formula for writing, but having a greater understanding of the building blocks that make a story great.  Carla says, “Screenwriting is not like any other kind of writing, because it is for a visual medium.  While the elements of story (plot, storyline, character arcs, story arcs, and good dialogue are also shared in creating a work of fiction, there are a couple of fundamental differences in the process of writing for the screen.”  One major difference is the use of exposition to drive a plot forward.

Carla currently teaches screenwriting at Santa Barbara City College Continued Learning and holds regular workshops in Montecito.  She has written a dozen original screenplays and two have been optioned.


  • The difference between plot and story
  • How action is used in the plot to advance the story
  • The relationship between plot, story and character
  • Is plot just about a random sequence of events?
  • Plotting = planning
  • Timing is everything: How does timing influence the evolvement of the story?
  • How character creates plot


  • Novice and advanced screenwriters
  • Screenwriters who want a better understanding of plot
  • Writers who want to learn more about the craft of screenwriting
  • Writers who want to challenge themselves
  • Screenwriters who write in all genres
  • Screenwriters who want to learn
  • Anyone “truly” interested in writing a industry-acceptable, compelling story for the screen

For information or to sign-up, please click on the following link:

The Lone Ranger needs to be rescued from itself!

…Well, as fond as I am of Johnny Depp and as fond as I am of the original Lone Ranger stories, the new Jerry Bruckheimer film has a few issues.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, when you read you begin with A – B – C, when you WRITE you begin with an opening that is going to hook the audience.  However, that did not happen.

I don’t know… maybe it’s me, but I wasn’t keen on seeing an aged (decaying) Tonto (Johnny Depp) on display at a Wild West Historical Museum as the opening image to this epic tale.  It was just weird.  For the first 10 minutes of the film, I sat there thinking, “Oh great.  This entire film is going to be a flashback!”  Its predictability nearly lulled me to sleep.  Even though the mummified Depp comes to life and “trades” a dead mouse for peanuts (which he proceeds to eat, shell and all) with a young boy dressed like the Lone Ranger, the opening image did not deliver.

I understand that action/adventure films are clearly their own genre, but when you take famous characters like the Lone Ranger and his side-kick Tonto, there needs to be something other than trains blowing up and disproportionate stunts to keep the plot moving forward. This re-invention of The Lone Ranger lacked depth for so many reasons.  Even the acting genius of Depp couldn’t pull this story out of its dull state.  Perhaps this is the reason for so many things blowing up. How many explosions does an audience need to see in a 2-hour period?  Were the explosions making up for what was lacking in the story? Then there is the issue of the “perpetual” run-away train, which crashes and burns and then resurrects before the next scene!

Poor Tonto, he’s been rejected by his tribe for accidentally showing the “white man” where all the silver was when he was a little boy, in exchange for a pocket watch from Sears and Roebuck.  I realize that reference was intended to be comedic, but it was just odd.  Especially since Sears and Roebuck began as a mail order catalog in 1893, and didn’t actually become a physical store until 1925.  The flashback takes us into 1833 (someone didn’t do their research).  Since therapists and Paxil didn’t exist back in that day, Tonto just roams around with a dead raven on top of his head.  He’s a “man departed,” and a “Wendigo Hunter,” which is code for a “nut job.”

The storyline was hard to follow – jumping from one thing after another, exhausting the audience along the way.  I heard comments after the film ended like, “Wow, longest damn film I’ve been to in forever,” or “Finally.  I didn’t think it would ever end.”  That’s a probably not good sign when walking out of a theater.  When the plot is not well written, and things jump around too much, it becomes hard to connect to the characters.  For those of us who grew up watching the original television series, this was frustrating.


Originally, The Lone Ranger began as a weekly radio broadcast that spanned 21 years.  The television series came later, and was on for 8 years.  While we did not have extraordinary stunts and pyrotechnic oomph back in the day, we were drawn into the characters.  This was not the case with Bruckheimer’s version. The characters were not properly developed – perhaps even confused from the start.  They forgot that Tonto was not the lead character, but the Lone Ranger’s sidekick.  In the new version, Tonto definitely gets top billing, and leaves the handsome masked ranger (Armie Hammer) riding on Silver through the tumbleweed of Texas (or rather Utah).


The plot is convoluted and the tone disastrous, which obviously led to the writers trying to connect the dots with forced humor and action over-kill.  

The ending is equally as bad as the beginning.  Suddenly, we’re back in the Museum. Tonto finished eating the peanuts, and continues to tell his story to the little boy dressed up as the masked ranger.  No longer dressed like an Indian, Tonto is in a suit (perhaps an Armani).  He puts on a bowler hat over his dead raven, and Tonto disappears from the museum window.  In a flash the “dead” raven is resurrected, and flies out of the exhibit window toward the screen.  As the credits roll, the styling lizard-skinned Tonto walks out into the Utah wilderness and he’s carrying a suitcase.  I don’t remember ever being so confused by an ending in my life.


Plotting along

According to Aristotle, the ability to plot is the most important aspect of writing–even more important than the characters themselves. Michael Tierno, author of Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters (one of my favorite books) says, “Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agendas.” When writing, I think this quote should be planted in front of our eyes at all times. Within the structure of plot, we should seek to convey truth through the human condition. So, your plot must have a single issue, or as Tierno puts it, “one unified action.”  He uses The Godfather as a perfect example of this.  It’s easy to think that there are numerous plots weaving this story together, but that is not the case.  The single issue in The Godfather is the war against the Corleones.  Everything else evolves because of that single action event.


Greek scholars translated Aristotle’s “Mythos” as plot.  We get the word “mythology” from mythos, and it’s defined as a story, legend, tale, folklore, fable, etc.  Without the plot, we only have characters, scenarios and language, but no story.  Aristotle understood plot, and so did other great writers throughout history.  Writers like: Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Geoffrey Chaucer, and Ovid, to name a few.  There is a reason their works have stood the test of time. Writers who understand the importance of creating stories that cause the reader or viewer to respond in an emotional way will create a winning story. Carl Jung said, “They touch the common experiences of life and death that humans undergo.” Sigmund Freud said, “They mirror our neuroses and help to resolve them.”  A screenwriter, who understands the power of myth and can recreate these stories in a fresh and present way, will scribe a successful story.

Plot is the framework where the story unfolds, but it is not the story itself. Story is what happens; plot is how those events unfold.

It is much like a seamstress who begins making a piece of clothing with a pattern.  The pattern is raw. Without it, the dressmaker cannot sew a single stitch; it is the framework for the dress. So the plot evolves one point at a time. Good plots move chronologically.  This is part of the reason that using flashbacks can be tricky.  Normally, a film that is written in chronological order works better, but (of course) there’s always the exception to that rule. Citizen Kane and Pulp Fiction are great examples of the exception. The only reason for writing a non-chronological plot is to reveal something about the character that will be better disclosed if not told in a chronological order. That being said, Aristotle, Horace and many other ancient writers advised to begin in medias res, “in the middle of things.” This is an ancient literary technique for manipulating the plot. It’s like hitting the reader or viewer between the eyes with a big club! In other words, begin the story near the heart of the problem. This device was used in films like: Sunset Boulevard, Fight Club and Hangover, and while this technique certainly served these plots well, BE CAREFUL. If you decide to use medias res, you need to understand its function and limitations, and for a novice screenwriter, I would avoid opening that door.


Never forget that plot is connected to action. Michael Tierno calls it the “Action-Idea,” or “mission statement.” So, when we are developing our plot, we must ask ourselves “if” it is an “Action-Idea.”  For example, say I want to write a screenplay about a love. That is not an “Action-Idea.” We have to look a little deeper.  Since plot and action are connected, how can we change this idea, to reveal a sequence of actions that have a beginning, middle and end? If I create a plot that involves the protagonist overcoming the obstacles to love that keeps him or her from engaging in “true” love, that is a great “Action-Idea.” I can then build central conflict; develop the character and other underlying themes in the story.

What about a quest-driven plot?  Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect example of this. A plot that is built around a quest always involves the protagonist’s search for a person, place or thing, and that can be tangible or intangible. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Professor Indiana Jones ventures into the jungles of South America searching for a golden statue. From the moment his search begins, conflict arises with every deadly trap that comes his way. The plot thickens when museum curator, Marcus Brody, who tells Jones about a biblical artifact called, “The Ark of the Covenant,” contacts Jones. This artifact holds the key to human existence, and finding it comes with a price.  Jones is on the journey of a lifetime as he finds himself in remote places like: Nepal and Egypt, while fighting against Nazi enemies and antagonist, Renee Bellog.


Different plots will result in different paths, but if a plot is properly created, there will always be a chain of events that follows (cause and effect). In the end, a well-crafted plot will drive the story forward with action, and define and enhance the protagonist’s journey.  After all, at the end of the day, all good stories reveal a journey.

What do you mean I don’t have a good story?

It’s amazing.  Wherever I go, when it’s found out that I’m a screenwriter, I will get approached by someone who says, “Oh my God!  You write screenplays?  I have the BEST idea for a screenplay…” In fact, this happened to me about a month ago at a coffee shop that I frequent.  I was working on a screenplay, and the woman at the table behind me started talking with me, wanting to know what I was writing.  After she learned that I write screenplays, she said, “I have the best story ever for a comedy.” Without hesitation she began to share.  Of course, she was not too pleased with my response. I said, “You know, that’s a really funny scene, but I’m not sure it’s an actual story.  You will need to develop a story-line in order for it to work as a screenplay.”

The nub of it…you cannot build a story on a scene.  I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work.


Another factor to consider when writing your screenplay:  You cannot just cram together various scenes, that have no connection with each other.  That is like trying to squash a square peg in a round hole; it will never work. They must be cohesive.  Like building blocks–they need each other to stand.  So, a good story needs to promise something from the beginning.  There must be a hook, and everything that you write from the first word to “The End” must lead to a final goal. Every sentence, every stitch of dialogue, the scenes, the descriptions all connect, and an audience or reader is magically drawn in.

So, the elements that you provide for the audience or reader actually draws them in, and keeps them engaged with the story and the characters.  Good stories are made up of various elements.  There are guidelines, not hard-fast rules, but structure and strategy is paramount.

Aristotle claimed, “the ability to plot, or to create a powerful structure, is the most important aspect of writing.  Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agendas.”

A story is evolving, not static.  It is LIVING–alive with anticipation, and that anticipation holds an audience/reader to the premise like glue.

There are reasons that films like: A Beautiful Mind (2001), Dances With Wolves (1990), How Green Was My Valley (1941), Zorba The Greek (1964), Norma Rae (1979), Crazy Heart (2009), The Silence of the Lambs (1995), The Sound of Music (1965), Lord of the Rings (2000-2010), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), Whale Rider (2003), Gangs of New York (2002), La Vie En Rose ( 2007), Finding Nemo (2003), Inception (2010), Toy Story 3 (2010), Fahrenheit  911 (2004), Atonement (2007), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), to name a few, have won Oscars.

For screenplay coaching and/or editing:

Other references: – where screenwriters and actors collaborate online to help bring scripts to life!