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

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 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!

It’s a whole new world: Shifting gears to the “B” story

Okay, so the day has been going along fairly smoothly–by that I mean my writing. But, as with any story, there is a time when you need to shift gears a bit, and transition to the “B” story.


Why would anyone want to move in another direction when things are going so well?

Well, according to Blake Snyder, author of Save The Cat, something BIG should happen on page 25.  It’s an ACT BREAK where we leave the old world behind.  The “we” is your protagonist.  The hero is about to embark on a journey, and it is precisely when he or she steps into ACT TWO. It’s the valley of decision.  Something has to occur, arrive, happen, etc., that prods the hero into a life-altering decision.  Snyder says, “The hero makes a decision for himself…he is proactive.”

Remember Legally Blonde?  The “B” story happens when Elle Woods goes into the salon and her relationship begins with the manicurist Paulette Bonafonte.  In the first few minutes of the screenplay, Elle, who revealed to the audience her goal to marry Warren, her college sweetheart, has been royally dumped.  In her fight to restore the relationship, she works her butt off to get into Harvard Law, but when she arrives she finds that Warren has not only gotten back together with a former girlfriend, the two are ENGAGED!  OOPS!  The “B” story provides the perfect setting for Elle to grow and become strong, and the nurturing relationship with the manicurist is a big part of that process.  It enables Elle to move into ACT THREE and transition into her triumphant finale!

So, the “B” story is a very important element.  Frequently, it’s the love story of the film, and a lot of new and fun characters are introduced at that time.  The “B” story also explores the THEME in a much different way.  Don’t forget the theme must be stated throughout your screenplay, and the “B” story is no exception.  It actually draws attention to the theme of your story, but in a much different way.

At about page 23 you want to take a hard look at your story, and make sure that you’re in a good place to transition into Act Two with the “B” story.

It’s a whole new world!

Screenwriting Coach

Tidbits for the Beginning Screenwriter

Even though screenplay writing is similar to other forms of fiction, it is very different than writing a novel.  The storyteller has unlimited words to weave together a captivating story, while the screenwriter only has somewhere between 99-110 pages to create a story for visual medium.  In other words, a screenwriter must SHOW the audience a story, not TELL them.  In addition to the word limitation, there is a time restraint.  You only have approximately 2 hours to tell your story.

There are other realities that make this medium very different from writing a novel.  Film is highly collaborative.  In other words, this is not just about “your” story.  “If” your screenplay is ever picked up for production, it will be in the hands of a director, a cast of actors, a film editor and a production crew.  Based on your screenplay, these artists will take your story and interpret it accordingly.  They may or may not even consult you.  In fact, rarely do screenwriter’s get consulted on their screenplays, and sometimes a production company will bring in another writer to make necessary adjustments (re-writes) to the script for production.  You might even be asked to re-write the entire thing!

A screenwriter must produce a manuscript (script) in a particular format with specific notations.  There is little, if any variation for the formatting of a script.  Today’s software technology makes this process a little easier.  Script formatting software is a little pricey, but commonly used by writing professionals. Software such as:  Final Draft, Movie Magic Screenwriter 6, Dramatica Pro for Screenwriter’s, and Celtx is the number one free software program available online.  I think it’s safe to say that most industry professionals use Final Draft.

While screenwriting is a wonderful genre for creativity, I also believe that it is one of the most structurally demanding genres to write in.  A screenplay is structurally driven.  So, if you are embarking on writing a screenplay, and/or entertaining the notion of doing so, I would suggest reading a few books first, and really getting an understanding of the elements of craft.

Suggested Reading:

  • Save The Cat by Blake Snyder
  • Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno
  • Story by Robert McKee
  • The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier

Additional Screenwriting Resources:

  • Script Magazine (Put out by Final Draft)
  •  Creative Screenwriting Magazine
  • The Hollywood Reporter (More about the “business” of entertainment)
  • Contracts For The Film & Television Industry By Mark Litwak
  • Writer’s Guide to Hollywood Producers, Directors, and Screenwriter’s Agents, 2001-2003:  Who They Are!  What They Want! And How To Win Them Over By Skip Press
  • How to Enter Screenplay Contest…And Win!  2nd Edition By Erik Joseph
  • Writer’s Guide to Hollywood Producers Winter/Spring 2012 By Trade in (2010) – $199.00
  • The Ultimate Writer’s Guide to Hollywood By Skip Press
  •  Script:  A Writer’s Guide To The Hollywood Jungle By Susan M. Marx
  •  Secrets of the Screen Trade From Concept to Sale By Allen B. Ury

Make a statement!

What is your theme?

In the first five minutes of a well-crafted screenplay, someone (not the main character) will pose a question or make a statement that is the theme of the movie.

It won’t be overly obvious, but more conversational—an off-hand remark that the main character will not get at the moment, but will be impacted by the statement later.


A good screenplay is an argument posed by the screenwriter, the pros and cons of living a particular kind of life, or pursuing a particular goal.

What is your argument?  What are you posing in your screenplay?

Throughout the screenplay, your argument must be laid out, either proving or disproving the statement—looking at the pros and cons from every possible angle.

No matter what genre you are writing, your screenplay MUST be about SOMETHING.

Declare:  I can prove it, and then write your proof!

Typical theme examples:

  1. Two heads are better than one.
  2. Love lost
  3. He who gets the gold makes the rules (Blank Check)
  4. The triumph of the human spirit (Schindler’s List)
  5. Life is short (The Last Song)
  6. Loneliness and isolation (Lost in Translation, Finding Nemo)
  7. Love and death (Love Story, The Notebook)
  8. Ugly duckling transforms into a swan (Miss Congeniality)
  9. Romance is better the second time around (It’s Complicated

A theme is the functional equivalent of glue that holds all of the elements of your story together. No matter what’s happening with your characters on the surface, there’s a common thread running beneath that unites them and–through the development and escalation of events–infers your premise that crime doesn’t pay, love conquers all or absence makes the heart grow fonder.

What theme is running through your story?


The 3 Act Film Structure

The 3 Act Film Structure

How to move your story along

The 3 act structure is the most common of all film structures. The 3 acts are very basic and consist of the following elements

1. Beginning
2. Middle
3. End

These three components make up the foundation of the film’s structure. All scenes hang on this three act structure. Think of the 3 acts as three pieces of the same line that all have the purpose of moving the story along. In the simplest terms, Act 1 sets up the story, Act 2 develops the story and Act 3 builds towards the climax and finally the resolution of the story.

When you’re watching films from this point forward, start paying attention to the structure of scenes and the three act structure in particular. As you watch movies with more of a filmmaker’s eye, you’ll start to see the similarities between films from a formatting standpoint.

Sometimes, I keep a notepad with me, and I break a film down while viewing it.  See if you can find the 3 acts in the movie you’re watching!

PS. Don’t do this when watching a movie with family or friends.  They will find it annoying.  Trust me, no one will want to watch you or hear you break down the process.  🙂