Begin Again: a perfect film for music lovers and romantics

If I could say just one word about the movie Begin Again, it would be, “Fabulous.”

However, I do have a few more things to say about this wonderfully fresh, alive, very “real” romance drama.

When Irish writer/director John Carney dazzled the world with the artsy, heartfelt film, Once, we were wooed by this modern-day musical set on the streets of Dublin Ireland. In similar fashion Carney has wooed us once again, but this time it’s in New York City.

It’s an all too familiar story for anyone who has been within 100 yards of the recording industry… an industry filled with shattered dreams, broken promises and broken hearts.  Jilted by her rising music artist boyfriend Dave (played by Maroon 5′s Adam Levine), Gretta (Keira Knightley) is left wandering the streets of New York broken-hearted and alone. Dan (Mark Ruffalo) has also been down on his luck. The very label he started fires this once high-power record-label executive. To make matters worse, his marriage of 18 years is a bust, he drinks too much, and his teen-age daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfield) is lonely and looking for attention in all the wrong places. She needs her dad.

When Gretta is asked by another musician friend to perform at a grungy NYC East Village nightclub, she reluctantly sings one of her original songs. Dan is drunk, but sees something in Gretta that inspires him, and he’s bent on producing her.

The artistic genius seen in Once is again repeated by Carney in Begin Again, as Dan and Gretta’s serendipitous encounter becomes the catalyst for a wonderfully “raw,” non-commercial collaboration between the two artists. There is no high-tech studio performances with over-produced sounds, but rather the authentic things that musicians frequently do to make their music happen.

Set to the sounds of New York City, this visionary producer pulls unknown musicians from around the city to produce a fresh, original sound – a sound that ultimately gets the attention of his old label.

The power of this film is not only about the music, but about a realistic creative process from start to finish. It breathes authenticity and originality, while the characters all march to the beat of their own personal transformation.

Unpredictable and heart-warming, this Begin Again promises to tug at your heart and put a smile on your face.

It’s the perfect film for music lovers and romantics…



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:

Interview with David Ball

Enjoy this article I wrote for Creative Screenwriting Magazine on “Breaking Down the Action.” I had a wonderful interview with author David Ball.  Ball wrote the book Backwards & Forwards A Technical Manual for Reading Plays.  It’s a fantastic guide for play-reading and screenplay reading alike.

An event is anything that happens. When one event causes or permits another event, the two events together comprise an action. Actions are a [screenplay’s] primary building blocks.”—David Ball

Article Link:

Reviewing the situation: plot problems and a contrived ending

I went with a friend to see The Big Wedding this weekend, and much to my surprise and disappointment, the screenplay didn’t deliver.  I was even more surprised, given the all-star cast led by Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams and Katherine Heigl. I mean, common… Really?


So, what went wrong?

You know something’s going on when in the first 20 minutes of a comedy, no one is laughing out loud.  I remembering saying to myself, “Gee, the premise seemed funny, but no one is laughing, beginning with me!”  Worse still, when a comedian like Robin Williams has difficulty getting an audience to laugh, something is definitely amiss.

Let’s go straight for the juggler– the plot didn’t deliver.  It had problems.  There was a lack of focus; perhaps some misplaced emphasis on elements that really weren’t important; perhaps a part of trying to get a laugh, only it wasn’t working.  It’s not really good when an audience is “trying” to figure out the theme and make sense of the plot, which was a continuous issue while watching this film–there was just too much going on!

Can there be too much conflict?

Conflict births action, so in and of itself–conflict is a much needed element in a story.  However, though you can’t really have too much conflict, you can have too many conflicts, and that was an issue in The Big Wedding.  In fact, the story is basically conflict-driven, but without focus.  It felt like I was at a smorgasbord, being dished a combination plate of Meet The Frockers, Bridesmaids, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with raunchy French sexual innuendos served on the side.

The film is a loose adaptation of the French film, Mon frère se marie (2006), where a Vietnamese refugee, who was adopted 20 years prior by a Swiss family is about to get married.  His Vietnamese mother uses the wedding as an opportunity to “finally” meet the family who so lovingly took in her son.  However, all was not as it was supposed.  The Swiss couple underwent a less-than amicable divorce, the father is bankrupt, the sister is alienated and the oldest brother gloomy.

The awkwardness and confusion in this storyline starts at the very onset of the film.  Imagine a divorced, older woman returning to the scene of the crime—you know…where marital life and family life evolved.  In this scenario, Ellie Griffin (Diane Keaton) shows up at her old stomping grounds, only to find her ex-husband’s face creviced between the legs of her former best friend (Susan Sarandon), who is laying on the granite kitchen counter top calling her lover (not husband) Don Griffin (Robert De Niro) a “slut.”


Why did Ellie leave her children and house in the hands of another woman, who happened to be her best friend?  How does a mother seemingly laugh off those life-altering events?  Of course, perhaps this character has a moment of sweet revenge when she ends up in a lengthy, loud sexual encounter with her ex (De Niro), who is particularly curious about her 90-minute orgasms.

Everyone seems to have an issue—to include the bride-to-be’s (Amanda Seyfried) weird and bankrupt parents.  This is dysfunction at its finest.  Perhaps a more authentic title would have been, “The Dysfunctional Wedding.”  Lyla (Katherine Heigl), the estranged child, who defines the word “bitch,” is as confusing as the day is long (and please someone talk to wardrobe and hair—clothing choices and her hairdo only added to her horrid persona). We do understand that she has obvious disdain for her father, and get a sense of how he sickens her in a metaphorical moment, when she manages to barf all over him as they reunite. Heigl’s character makes no sense, and never fully resolves.  You are just left with a million unanswered questions, and a very unlikeable character.

Ellie and Don’s brilliant 29-year-old doctor son Jared (Topher Grace) is saving himself for “Miss Right,” who happens to be Alejandro, his adopted brother’s sexy Colombian sister, Nuria (Ana Ayora).  Of course, he’s unaware that she’s “the one,” until she decides to give him a hand-job under the dinner table at the rehearsal dinner.  Suddenly, he’s inspired!

When a script is crammed with too many characters, with too much conflict, and too many unanswered questions, it is an indication that there is far too much going on.  The idea of “one external conflict” isn’t really present.

Here’s another important fact:  For a story to work, the audience has to have a relationship with the main character.  They must see relatable characteristics.  Even if the character is majorly flawed, the audience is still going to root for him or her.  I did not find myself doing that with any of these characters, in fact, they ALL annoyed me.

According to Aristotle, creating a powerful (believable) plot and structure is the most important aspect of writing.  In addition, plot and character are unified.  Screenwriter and author, Michael Tierno says, “Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agendas.”  Did Justin Zackham serve his own agenda?

For a story to work, the protagonist has to want something, and someone (the antagonist, and I’m still wondering who or what the antagonist is in this film) has to be there to stop that from happening.  It’s one major conflict—an important conflict, one that will send him on a journey that will change his or her life!

The Big Wedding promises to entertain—the title itself let’s us know we’re in store for something full-size!  But does it?  The late Blake Snyder, who authored one of my favorite books, Save The Cat talks about the “Promise of the premise…” Snyder suggests that a movies premise (it’s poster) can only satisfy if we (the audience) “see it in action.” In other words, there must be a pay off!  For the audience to feel satisfied, we must see the fulfillment of the promise (the theme) unfold with every scene.  If this does not take place, Snyder says, “The audience will consider it to be a bad experience.”


There is no pay-off in The Big Wedding, and by the time it’s over—the audience has only seen fragments of a wedding that never even got off the ground.  We’ve seen an ending that feels sudden and contrived, and three main characters that might be more believable if they were working as advocates for AARP.

Unlike the brilliant writing seen in the The Bucket List (2007), the biggest thing Justin Zackham has going for him with The Big Wedding is his exceptional cast, but even their genius couldn’t drive the rudder of this story.


What’s the point? There are five of them…

“A movie, I think, is really only four or five moments between two people; the rest of it exists to give those moments their impact and resonance. The script exists for that. Everything does.” – Robert Towne

I recently had someone ask me, “What the heck is a plot point?” Essentially, the plot is the driving force of your screenplay, so it’s sufficient to say, the plot is vital.  In fact, Aristotle believed it to be everything.

You can create the most interesting character in the world, but without an equally interesting plot, the audience will not want to spend 90-120 minutes with that person.  Also, here’s a NEWSFLASH… ALL MOVIES HAVE THE SAME STRUCTURE!  It’s only the rare exception that steps away from this.  In the same way an architect draws up a blueprint for a building, you too must plot your screenplay accordingly, and you’re not going to get away from structure.  It’s that simple.

Here’s the way basic film structure breaks down.  There are EIGHT sequences–two in Act One, four in Act Two, and two in Act Three.  Within this structure, there are five major plot points, which are the building blocks behind good sequence crafting.  These plot points are:  Inciting incident, Lock-in, Midpoint, Main Culmination and the Third Act Twist.

No matter the story or its genre, each one has 8 plot points that you have to follow.  And once you know these 8 plot points, writing a script outline and a full screenplay becomes infinitely easier because it’s no longer you vs 110 blank pages. You’re writing towards a goal instead of just randomly going at it, without a building block or blueprint.

It’s very important that you have a good understanding of what these plot points mean, because they will be the foundation for your script outline.

I also came across this, and feel it’s worth sharing.  World famous screenwriter Syd Field talks about the writing structure, and gives exercises for practicing writing dramatic structure!  Here’s the link:

Three-act Structure

Syd Field, author of Screenplay and The Screen Writer’s Workbook, has outlined a paradigm that most screenplays follow. A paradigm is a conceptual scheme. This paradigm is the structure that holds screenplays together. According to Field, screenplays follow a three-act structure, meaning the standard screenplay can be divided into three parts: Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution.

Act I comprises the first quarter of the screenplay. (For a two hour movie, Act I would last approximately 30 minutes.)

Act II comprises the next two quarters of the film. (For a two hour movie, Act II would last approximately 60 minutes.)

Act III comprises the final quarter of the film. (For a two hour movie, Act III would be the final 30 minutes.)

The “Plot Point”–According to Field, the three acts are separated by two plot points. A plot point, often called a reversal, is an event that thrusts the plot in a new direction, leading into a new act of the screenplay. Later screenplay gurus have built on Field’s theory by stating that Plot Point #1, which leads into Act II, is the moment when the hero takes on the problem.

The Three-act Paradigm:

For screenplay coaching and/or editing:

Additional References: – where screenwriters and actors collaborate online to help bring scripts to life!

Universal appeal: Transcending shallowness to birth inspiration

We are all on the same path.  It’s called “life,” and while we all share life experiences, we all have varied stories.  Our life experience is what connects us to each other, and we’re all walking in linear direction. In a screenplay, your main characters must do the same.  The protagonist is on a journey of discovery…whatever that discovery may be.  Even in death, there is discovery.

Famed screenwriter Syd Field says, “The mythology of the journey is a universal theme in all human expression and is expressed and imitated no matter what our language, culture, color, or location.”  From birth to death we walk the same path, and it is a path of personal discovery.

Why do some screenplays seem to tug at an audience more?  What is it that makes a story good?  It is the universal theme seen in the storyline, the development of the characters and our ability to relate to the characters at some level. Even if it is a flawed character, or a tyrant monster antagonist that is bent on destroying the world–we’ve seen them in the news, we’ve read about them in literature, and perhaps even been subject to his destructive ego.  Certainly we relate to the hero’s journey.  We understand internal and external conflict, because we all experience this in life.  We want a character like this to win; it’s important for him or her to conquer every personal and external battle.

A screenplay must transcend shallowness in order to create a story with universal appeal. What do I mean by that?  Each person has a life story with endless encyclopaedic variations. The distinction of a master screenwriter can be seen in his or her ability to select a lifetime of moments that touch, inspire and move an audience.  That in essence is universal appeal, and it is supremely important.

We will forever relate to these heroes who show incredible courage, valor, bravery in the face of danger or injustice, self-sacrifice, defenders of justice!  We will always root for Indiana Jones  in Raider’s of the Lost Ark, or John Book in The Witness, or young Daniel Lai Iijsso in The Karate Kid, or General Maximus Decimus Meridus in Gladiator, or Bob Wiley in What About Bob?, or Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, or William Munny in Unforgiven, or Celie in The Color Purple, or Clark Kent in Superman: The Movie, or Neo in The Matrix, or Spiderman in The Amazing Spiderman, or Rick Blaine in Casablana, or the infamous Robin of Loxley in Robin Hood.  The list is endless and ever-expanding.

For Screenwriting Coach/Script Analysis & Online Instruction


Conflict and obstacles: Driving forces in a screenplay


A story without conflict is a story that’s going nowhere.

Did I just say that?  I did.

The bottom line…if there’s no dramatic conflict, there’s no drama.  Even in comedy (which is drama with a twist), there is conflict. Remember the comedy The Hangover?  It’s conflict haven! While the film itself doesn’t do much for me, it is certainly filled with conflict and obstacles.

Now, I should probably share that conflict is not really the same thing as an obstacle.  By definition, conflict is: an argument, a disagreement (often long-lasting), a conflict of interests, a clash of opposition (like wishes or needs), a dispute, a quarrel, a struggle, warfare, etc.  Obstacle is:  a thing that blocks one’s way or hinders one’s progress. Such as an obstacle to achieving a goal.

In a screenplay, an obstacle is any resistance to the main characters want or desire.  Now, want or need creates action, so it’s imperative that you define your character’s need early-on.  When obstacles occur and work against each other, they create dramatic conflict, and this is GOOD!  Here is a life example:

The roofer’s ladder fell over and he has to go to the restroom in the worst possible way. All of the other roofers have gone to lunch, and he is alone.  He has a need, but the obstacle is the ladder that fell over.  What’s he going to do?  Yell, scream, try and find another way down… This roofer’s need motivates him to ACT and over-ride the obstacle.  Obstacles can be prodded by other people or by circumstances.  In the case of the roofer, his circumstance was the obstacle.

As a screenwriter, you have to inject conflict into your script to keep the action moving along so the audience will remain interested.

Conflict is most important when it stands in the way of the protagonists success and/or transformation. In other words, what is trying to keep your hero from succeeding?  The use of conflict and obstacles in a screenplay are immensely important, in fact, dramatic conflict (motivation vs. obstacle) is the very thing that drives the story.  Conflict creates dramatic tension.
Elizabeth English, founder of the Moondance Film Festival in Colorado says, “There are five distinct types of conflict that can be used in screenwriting. Inner or personal conflict, relational conflict, social or local conflict, situational conflict, and universal or cosmic conflict. All five types of conflict can be in a single screenplay, and can involve most, if not all of the characters, interacting with each other and with the protagonist and antagonist(s). Conflict as the central event drives the story and the characters. Conflict in the plot structure breathes life into your story! The audience relates to your protagonist and to the conflicts he or she faces. The patterns of tension resulting from the visible and invisible forces the characters overcome create a believable reality for the film-goer, and increase the film’s impact on that audience.”
There is no doubt that inner conflict is the most difficult to relay on the screen, in-particular of it’s the main conflict in a story.  A great example of this is in the film American Beauty. is the hardest type of conflict to convey successfully in a film, if that’s the central focus of conflict in the story.
Conflict is an essential element in every screenplay, no matter what the genre.  The audience needs to see the protagonist succeed on his or her journey, but part of that success is in his or her ability to overcome every obstacle and to beat continual conflict in the story.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is all about internal conflict.  Hamlet is in a war with his conscience and his inner conflict is actually resolved as he is dying, when he realizes that his mother wasn’t a part of planning his father’s death.
So, as you’re writing your story, REMEMBER  as important as it is to create conflict to move your story along,  so too must you create a main obstacle that your protagonist (hero) will struggle to overcome.