I always start my screenwriting seminars by asking why we go to so much trouble writing a script. It all comes down to one word: Audience. It’s all about the audience. And for them it’s all about two words: Great Movie!
This book is a practical manual on how to write a great movie. I teach the craft of the dramatist, focusing on a set of key tools for the screenwriter within the context of a complete working technique. In the Part One of the book I explain how each of the tools works, and illustrate them with a series of successful movies: Training Day, What Women Want, Minority Report, The Godfather, Tootsie, and Blade Runner. I also provide a short demonstration of each tool to help you understand their function. I would recommend that you not only watch those six films before you read this book, but that you become an expert in them because it really help you learn and internalize my tools and techniques.
Part Two consists of the real-time creation, development, and construction of an original screenplay that I’m really writing, built from scratch, to give you a clear picture of how to actually use these tools in full detail on your own scripts. I start with an utterly raw idea and build it up, with you watching over my shoulder as I wrestle it into shape. I try to leave the process as unvarnished as possible, because it shows what you’ve got to deal with as a writer—the problems, discoveries, wipe outs, eureka moments, puzzles, and black holes that constitute the daily grunt work of building a script. It’s crucial to bridge the gap from having an understanding of these tools to being able to successfully apply them to your own partially developed screenplays. Writers of every skill level can learn this material, and my intention is to be as useful and practical as possible so that you can consistently write screenplays that work.
The key tools that are the focus of this book come from widely varying sources and are a mixture of classic structural principles and cutting-edge technique. The first tool comes from observations that Aristotle made about what tends to be common to those dramas that grip an audience—dilemma, crisis, decision & action, and resolution. Theme is connected to dilemma and so on because the way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma expresses the theme of the script. Next is a powerful brainstorming tool called the 36 Dramatic Situations. It consists of storytelling’s raw elements like madness, disaster, ambition, and the necessity of sacrificing loved ones, and it can help trigger story possibilities and enliven your creative process. The Enneagram is a highly effective resource for creating and developing dynamic, complex, and realistic characters. It’s a system of personality profiling that combines ancient wisdom about human nature and cutting-edge psychology, and it’s great for doing character work. Research and brainstorming, while not strictly tools themselves, are key parts of the complete writing process. The Central Proposition works with the logic of argumentation adapted to dramatic writing to tie the parts of a script together into a coherent whole and enhance the conflict. Finally, the three-step process called Sequence, Proposition, Plot is a remarkable tool for actually constructing the mechanics of the plot. It works with reverse cause and effect to make a script tight and keep it on track, as well as with a sophisticated conflict mapping process that helps create and structure conflict to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
Before we get into the first part of the book, I’d like to share some useful insights born of my experience as a writer, script consultant, and dramatic writing teacher for many years. I was classically trained as a playwright in the work of William Thompson Price, a turn-of-the-century playwriting teacher who had twenty-eight students, twenty-four of whom had hits on Broadway. I worked in the New York theater as a dramaturg and taught playwriting for several years before I started teaching screenwriting. All the tools from playwriting are perfectly applicable to screenwriting, because they’re really about the craft of the dramatist. It’s about making a story work dramatically. It has to be actable, and it has to grip an audience. I’d like to clarify that when I talk about drama in this book, I’m speaking generally about all genres, because these tools and techniques work equally well for writing comedy, thriller, action, romantic comedy, horror, science fiction, or “drama.” Since I teach the craft of the dramatist, I refer to creating drama to cover the art of dramatic plotting, because whether you’re writing a nutball comedy or a bone-crunching thriller, it has to work dramatically.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE AUDIENCE
When you go into a movie with major expectations, what specifically do you expect? You’ve heard this movie is great, that it will rock your world, and you’re excited. Can you put your finger on what you expect from it? Obviously this will vary with different genres, because you expect one thing from an intense drama, another from a romantic comedy, and yet another from an action thriller, but it’s interesting to examine your expectations as specifically as possible. Remember, it’s your job as a screenwriter to satisfy audience expectations.
Anyone who’s done live performance knows intimately that it’s all about the audience. Some screenwriters who sit in their rooms trying to come up with wild stories aren’t necessarily trained to think in terms of the audience. But that’s what this medium is all about. It’s a performance medium intended to transform an audience. A movie playing to an empty theater has no power—it’s just shadows on the wall. The power of the film resides in the response of the audience.
I would urge you to make a professional study of the audience—your audience. First, pay attention to the buzz about an upcoming film. Why do people want to see it? Are they electrified or just interested? One a scale of 1-10, how intense are their expectations? Next, study audiences as you’re on your way into the movie theater. Look at your own expectations as you go in. Gauge the electricity in the air. While the movie’s playing, feel the audience response. Are they thrilled, scared, let down, intoxicated, bored, or exhilarated? Then, when the movie’s over, stand outside the theater and watch the audience come out. Study the expressions on their faces. Listen in on how they’re reacting. I’m always passionately curious about how my fellow moviegoers are reacting to the movie we’ve just seen together.
When Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, people camped out at Graumann’s Chinese theater six weeks in advance (it’s true—I lived right down the street). On opening night I went there and hung out with them, specifically to study audience expectations. I interviewed them, asking “What are you expecting?” They were pumped! I’d get answers like, “Oh man, I saw the first one when I was seven and it was the greatest movie ever! I’m expecting a ride to the moon!” When the theater let the first couple hundred people in, they ran inside screaming, jumping, and whooping it up. Those fans really had it—audience expectations, that is—and I wanted to stick my finger in that electric socket. Here’s what Billy Wilder said about audiences: “I never overestimate the audience, nor do I underestimate them. I just have a very rational idea as to who we’re dealing with, and that we’re not making a picture for Harvard Law School, we’re making a picture for middle-class people, the people that you see on the subway, or the people that you see in a restaurant. Just normal people.”
Study your own reactions. Make yourself your own guinea pig. You’re an audience member and you can see right into your own deepest responses. Observe your body chemistry afterwards. Are you tripping on adrenaline? Is your gut churning? Are you in shock? Examine your mood. Are you giddy and in love? Do you feel energized, infatuated, distressed, inert, crazed, pissed off, silly, serious, demonic, transfigured? How did the movie match up to your expectations? Think about how you feel when you come out of a truly great film. Consider the various levels of exhilaration, satisfaction, intensity, adrenaline, happiness, clarity, fury, energy, or love that you’re feeling. As a screenwriter, this is the type of thing you want to do to an audience.
The Writer Sculpts the Mood of the Audience
More than studying your own response to a movie, it’s essential to ask: How do you want your audience to feel? Specifically, what mood do you want them to be in at the end of your movie? As the dramatist, you’re sculpting the mood in which they leave the theater. It’s like a magic spell or hypnosis, where it all comes together at the end, as in: “When I snap my fingers you will feel light and refreshed.” It’s all about transforming the mood of the audience—so what mood do you want to transform them into? The more specifically you can pinpoint the mood that you want the audience to leave the theater in, the clearer your focus will be as a writer.
I had an experience of this a few years ago when a friend came back from seeing the band, The Moody Blues, and he was in a fabulous mood. He was telling me how phenomenal the show was and how I had to go the next night. Now I’d had my fill of the band years before, so I wasn’t getting very fired up or even pretending well. He got frustrated and said, “No, you’re not getting it!” He had something inside him that he really wanted me to have. This is what I’m talking about. What do you have in you that you really want to transfer to your audience? What, specifically, are you trying to do to them? The more you can pinpoint this, the more focused you’ll be as a writer and the more clearly you will see your intention for the entire movie.
What Do We Hunger For in Movies?
If I’m walking down the street and there are people lined up around the block for a movie, I’ll look each one of them in the eye as I walk by and ask (in my mind), “Why are you here? What do you need out of this movie? What are you hungering for? What are your hopes, your dreams, your ambitions, your desires?” They’re there to get something special and I’m observing them with the passionate curiosity of a writer, a scientist, a student of human nature, and a fellow moviegoer. I’m trying to get an ever deeper and more complex, but also a clearer and simpler, understanding of the audience. I consider it part of my job, because the audience is who I’m writing for. I’m not writing for readers, agents, studio execs, directors, or actors. I’m writing for each and every person who enters a theater and wants to see a great movie.
Another good question is “What’s special about a good movie?” It’s simple enough to ask, but it’s literally the sixty-four million dollar question these days. If everyone knew what was special about a good movie, then each movie you see would be the best movie yet made. Certain movies have a “magic something,” and it’s your job as a screenwriter to put that magic something in the script. The more you can put your finger on it, the more you’ll be able to either recognize it when you stumble upon it or to create it.
“Why do you love movies?” is yet another good question. Your initial answer may be simple enough, but if you contemplate it over the years you’ll get deeper and deeper levels of understanding. What are these bizarre things called movies? Why do you love them? What hunger do they satisfy? It’s interesting to think about the movies that stay with you, to look back at scenes you’ll never forget, and to remember the first time you saw one of your favorite movies. Sit down and make a list of the movies that changed your life, gave you a new outlook on life, or awakened something in you. Think about why they had this effect and try to articulate specifically what they did for you.
And then there’s the question “In real life, what transports you?” What puts you over the moon? What puts you in a wildly altered state? To be really transported is an astounding experience. It is to be swept into a different dimension, to be taken to an exalted place, to feel a wildly energetic freedom. It’s interesting to look at the absolute peak experiences in your own life—the ones you can count on one hand, the ones that stand out far above all the others. If you can isolate one of them, examine the confluence of powerful emotions around it, the intensity, the exhilaration, or the pain. Why will you never forget it? Bring this level of intensity to your writing and it will help you to create a great movie. Not that you’re replicating this specific event, but that you’re bringing that level of intensity to your script. The audience wants your movie to be one of the absolute peak experiences of their lives. As a storyteller and dramatist, you’re working with the elements of magic, transformation, rekindling dreams, and changing people’s lives or perceptions. Throughout history, the storyteller has traditionally been a bringer of fire, of life, energy, healing, freedom, fun, action, insight, beauty, intensity, focus, and clarity. You have a wonderful job, bringing powerful transformative energy and a full spectrum of emotions into people’s lives.
The Stage and the Altar
Way back in history, the stage and the altar were the same thing. The altar would be used as a stage, with religious dramas enacted upon it. Generally these dramas were about the transformation of the hero and were for the benefit of those gathered there. They were used as a way to show those watching how to transform themselves. From its earliest days drama has served a shamanistic function. People need help and often seek guidance in getting through life’s transitions: from childhood into adulthood, entering into a marriage or dissolving one, having children, dealing with success or failure, growing old, and facing death, among many others. Think about the great movies that have given you a direction in life or helped you understand something key about yourself or the world. It may sound strange to think of movies having a religious function but, again, it’s about transforming an audience.
As Gandhi said at the end of the award-winning film about his life, “I can show you a way out of hell.” Martin Luther King said that a powerful emotional experience can be the first step on the road to commitment. Comedy is about transforming an audience as well, and clowns have their ancestry as priests. Laughter is very transformative. Many comedians take their job very seriously. They know it’s crucial to laugh as a way to deal with life. Groucho Marx once inscribed a book, “They’ll never know how necessary our insanity is to their sanity.”
People expect a lot from movies. Audience demand is a very important thing to understand because it’s so powerful, even if audiences are often unaware of it themselves. It’s like a river that looks lazy on the surface but has a fierce undercurrent. Audience demand is definitely there and it’s your job as screenwriter to satisfy it, so get in touch with it. A great way to get in touch with audience demand is to remember the last time someone told you that you’ve got to go see a particular movie, it will rock your world, and change your life. You go and the movie’s really disappointing. Look at your reaction. It isn’t “Oh too bad, it was lame.” It’s more like, “DAMN IT! I didn’t get what I was promised and I’m mad. I needed that!” The mark of a great artist is that he or she often gives the audience what they want even if the audience itself doesn’t know what it wants. So penetrate down to what audiences want and demand, and get in touch with it as much as you can. It’s your bread and butter. Locating it is like digging up the street, finding the giant electric line that powers the whole city, and tapping into that power. Audiences bring a lot of energy to the theater and if you can tap into it, then it will multiply the power of your movie.
Why does an audience bring such a powerful set of demands to a movie? It’s because in real life our own demands often go unmet. Notice in your own life the myriad demands that you place on your friends, your spouse, your parents, your children, your neighbors, and your politicians. How many are likely to be met or can ever be met? Look at the demands placed on you in your own life.
Movies are an arena in which magical things can happen and that’s part of their enchantment—the things that could never happen in real life can happen in film and theater, even if it’s only for a few special hours. Many of us have what could be called chronic avoidance, in which we tiptoe around tricky or difficult issues. Say, in a dysfunctional family there may be an unspoken contract that a certain issue will not be broached, so everyone tiptoes around it. There can be a tremendous hunger for resolution. And then if someone does tackle this tricky issue it may blow up in their face, making the problem a thousand times worse and still leaving it unresolved. The hunger for resolution is still active. People seek closure and meaning in life.
Another important question is, “How do you intend to penetrate the indifference of the audience?” Audiences of today are very jaded. From their point of view they’ve seen it all and they know it all. This isn’t true, of course, but they can genuinely feel that way nonetheless. Plus, anyone entering into a new experience will tend to arrive with a certain degree of insulation. This is natural, but it’s something you have to overcome to get through to the audience. It’s very much akin to an electrician stripping the rubber coating off a wire to get a live connection.
Drama is often compared to a crucible. In chemistry a crucible is a ceramic pot used to contain a powerful chemical, or in steel making it’s the container that holds the molten steel. Look at the drama as a crucible in which we can experiment with radical solutions, powerful chemicals, explosive reactions, and forbidden ideas. People often need radical solutions in their lives, but these can be tricky to experiment with. What if your marriage is falling apart and you need a radical solution? You don’t want to go home and just try one out, because if it doesn’t work then there goes the rest of your marriage. But you can watch a movie or play that does so, and thereby get a feel for how it might work for you to try at home. The movies are a “let’s pretend” arena in which we can engage in an experiment from a safe distance. We can put out our feelers or do a taste test to see how it might work in our own life. Some of the best medicines are poisons in the right dosage. In the same way, radical insights in life, properly used, can liberate people. The healing power of art is something that people continually seek out, and it has always been a central part of civilization itself.
Transforming the Audience
Part of the fun of being a dramatist is being a bull in a china shop, going after the sacred cows, going where it’s verboten. Here’s a quote from the writer, Salman Rushdie: “One of the things a writer is for is to say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable, and ask difficult questions.” The key word in the entertainment industry is “outrageousness.” You can describe your job as a screenwriter as a cross between a bomb maker and a poet. You’re blowing up ideas and doing it all through language. The audience seeks a profound transformative experience, so as a dramatist you’re working with elements of great change, radical transformation, and powerful resolution, with the possibility of powerful, cataclysmic, permanent change. It’s a chance to really rewire the brain of the audience—to permanently change the way they think—and the audience is up for that. They come in, open their minds, and say, “Come on. Do something, anything. Let’s party. I need change.”
Catharsis is an emotional release, a cleaning out of the system, a fresh start. Aristotle described it as a cleaning out of the undesirable emotions, a purging of the system. Think about how a great movie can make you feel cleansed or new or energized or inspired. Sometimes you just need to burn clean the normal day-to-day banter that rattles around in your brain. David Mamet, in Three Uses of the Knife (Vintage Books, New York, 1998), says: “The purpose of theater, like magic, like religion—those three harness mates—is to inspire cleansing awe.” Catharsis is like an oil change and it brings up the question, “What do you periodically need to have cleaned out of your system?” It’s been proven by behavioral scientists that people need to change states at least once a day. You see people come home, have a beer, go jogging, or go to the movies, to shift into a different state.
What I teach is classic structural technique for the dramatist, the time-tested structures of which most successful plots consist. It’s a good thing to have under your belt. Not that you want to rely on it for everything, but in my experience it will cover about 85 percent of the scripts you work on. Tim Robbins, the actor, writer, and director said in an interview:
I respect the classical form of film and storytelling. I’ve done experimental, absurdist and dadaistic theater and there are ways to incorporate those styles into storytelling, but you’ve got to go to the classical structure of storytelling. I don’t believe in indulgence for the sake of indulgence. I believe in the audience. I think they’re central to what we’re doing. That’s why we’re doing it. I’m always aware that an audience will be watching this. I don’t want to get too esoteric or intellectual with something I’m doing because it really is entertainment we’re doing.
My playwriting teacher, Irving Fiske, did a translation of Hamlet into modern American English in 1946, and in his introduction he said: “The profoundest hunger of the modern audience is not for an escape from reality, as is commonly thought, but for an escape into reality from much of the meaninglessness of their everyday lives.” Certainly, escape from reality is a perfectly valid form of entertainment, but escape into reality is a powerful concept. A solid jolt of reality can connect an audience with what really matters to them in their lives.
THE CRAFT OF THE DRAMATIST
A big part of your job as a screenwriter is to dramatize your script. To dramatize a story means to make it gripping to an audience, to create continuous, coherent, compelling dramatic action. Essentially what we’re talking about is turning mere “Story” into Drama. Mere Story is a term a script doctor would use to describe a weakness in the material, in the same way that the term, episodic, would be used. Episodic means that there are unconnected episodes that don’t really go anywhere and don’t build much tension. A simple example of mere Story is: Joey wakes up in the morning, has some orange juice, ties his shoes, and walks his dog. It’s a mere succession of events that don’t necessarily engage the audience. It’s flat dramatically, and it has to be dramatized or it probably won’t work as a performance medium. There’s a huge difference between narrative and drama. What I teach are the habits of mind of a trained dramatist, and part of your job as a dramatist is to be able to recognize mere Story when you see it and to be able to dramatize it. It’s much like turning water into wine.
Turning Story into Drama
You want your whole script to be Drama and not Story. You want each act to be dramatic and not mere Story, and the same goes for each sequence, and for each scene. You never want to revert to mere Story. How you do this? The short answer is this book. There’s not one magic button that you push to turn Story into Drama, but the skilled combination of all the tools and techniques that I teach can render every part of your script dramatic. It’s about keeping the audience on the edge of their seats and engaging them emotionally, but it has to build in intensity, be actable, alive, and compelling. Mere Story means that it’s merely information and is flat for the audience.
You definitely need a good story as the basis of your script, but mere Story is not enough. In the same way, you need life in your script, but mere life is not enough. You need character, but mere character is not enough, and you need action, but mere action is not enough. There’s an important distinction here, because you need storytelling skills as big as you can get them. A movie is a story rendered into the dramatic medium. You need imagination, a sense of adventure and fun, an ability to weave a story together and to spellbind an audience—and you need all these things as big as you can get them. It’s important to bear in mind that even the most advanced structural tools applied to bland material simply won’t work. Well-structured crap is still crap. It may run like a formula one race car, but it’s still not a movie that anyone will pay to see. To compete as a screenwriter you need a healthy and vigorous imagination, and it’s hard to stress this enough. But however creative your story is, it still has to be dramatized if it’s going to work in this performance medium. It has to be actable and it has to grip an audience.
Perhaps the single biggest misconception is that a good story automatically makes a good film. There are many excellent novels that don’t lend themselves to being movies. There’s a saying in theater: “It may sound great around a campfire but it’s not stageworthy. Yes, it’s a good story, but we can’t act it out on stage in a way that will grab an audience.” Essentially your job as a screenwriter is to create compelling dramatic action. By compulsion, I mean that at the high point of suspense you couldn’t pay the audience to leave. They must stay and see how it turns out.
Creating Dramatic Action
This brings up the concept of Dramatic Action. Dramatic Action is not car chases and shoot outs. It’s a state of action you put the audience in, a state of subjective excitement that a movie creates in the audience. You’ve probably seen movies in which half the world is being blown up, yet again, and you’re nodding off in your seat, and you’ve seen movies with two people fighting it out in a living room, and you’re riveted. It’s in the latter that you’re truly in a state of action. This is the real meaning of Dramatic Action. You want to get the audience on the edge of their seat and keep them there.
It’s generally acknowledged that 90-95 percent of all scripts submitted in both film and theater are atrocious. And I’ve often heard, don’t kid yourself, it’s 95 percent. Script readers at Hollywood studios tell me it’s 98%. And when they say atrocious it’s not just a figure of speech. These scripts are so bad as to be unreadable. This means only 2 to 5 percent of all scripts submitted are even worth reading. Is it surprising, then, how many mediocre movies get made? Writing a screenplay is much harder than most people imagine. So what is the problem? Many of the people writing these scripts are intelligent and often have good stories to tell, but they have yet to grasp the craft of the dramatist.
Creating Unity of Action
Aristotle noticed that those dramas which grip an audience tend to consist of one complete action. He talks about it as the telling of a deed—a hero’s deed. The ability to find one main action at the core of a script can help unify it. For instance, even in a script as complex as The Godfather, there is one main action at its heart, and it’s that Michael defeats Don Barzini and saves the Corleone family. Can you find the one main action that constitutes the heart of your script? Is there one main deed that your hero performs? Part of this has to do with the fact that you’ve got roughly a two-hour window in which to tell your story. Movies are more-or-less this length and it’s rather inflexible, unless you’re hugely successful and are allowed to make a three-hour film. Having that limited amount of time forces you to focus your resources. It’s like being in a fight where you only get one punch—you really want to make it count. You’ve got to find the main action of your script and build everything around it. The tools presented in this book will help guide you through doing just that.
Unity of Action is a concept that is not well understood in either the film or theater industries. This simple definition of Unity of Action has held up well for me over the years.
- A Single Action
- A Single Hero
- A Single Result
You have one main action happening, one central person doing it, and one result springing from it. This means that all the parts of the film serve the one main action that the script revolves around. A good example of Unity of Action is a symphony. Each of the instruments in the orchestra are doing different things, but they all work together to create this one piece of music. In drama you have powerful ideas operating together as a unit—operating together to achieve a specific goal. You see this in the military and sports, where everyone’s doing different things, but they’re all working toward the achievement of one thing. In drama, we’re talking about structural unity and coherence. If it’s not part of the one main action, then it doesn’t belong in the script.
Getting Down to the Core of Your Script
Part of the definition of dramatic writing is that it’s a fight to the finish. The old saying goes: conflict is to drama as sound is to music. Conflict or opposition is central to what makes a story compelling to an audience because it helps creates suspense. A fight to the finish is two people in a knock-down, drag-out fight and only one of them will walk away. It’s two dogs fighting over a bone. This is true whether it’s a fight over the fate of the world, or over where to go on the family’s Christmas vacation. Conflict makes comedies work dramatically as well, but within a different context.
If you go back to the earliest Greek theater, there were only two characters onstage. The introduction of the third character by Sophocles was considered a major dramatic innovation. This ability to see two main characters in conflict helps you to get down to the absolute core of your material. Once you strip it down to your protagonist and antagonist, then you’re at the nucleus of your plot. If this works, then the rest of your script will have a good shot at working. If it doesn’t, then whatever you add to the plot probably won’t help.
Engineering Your Screenplay Before You Write It
William Thompson Price said that you can take all the energy that goes into rewrites and engineer your screenplay properly before you write it. This is what this book is all about. I’ll be showing you how to build a script—the art of plot creation, development, and construction—and a big part of this is knowing how to structure coherent, compelling Dramatic Action. It’s a lot of work, but so is twenty rewrites. I’ll teach you how to do it up front. Here’s what David Mamet has to say on the subject in his book On Directing Film (Penguin Books, New York, 1991):
It’s very difficult to shore up something that has been done badly. You’d better do your planning up front, when you have the time. It’s like working with glue. When it sets, you’ve used up your time. When it’s almost set, you then have to make quick decisions under pressure. If you design a chair correctly, you can put all the time into designing it correctly and assemble it at your leisure.
Dramatic Writing is an Elusive Art
Dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary disciplines. It’s hard to pin down; it’s slippery, tricky, and unpredictable. In my experience as a script consultant, I’ve found that it’s tricky figuring out why something looks good on paper and fails onscreen. It can be hard to figure out why something works most of the way through and then falls apart. It’s mysterious how a movie with all the top people and big money loses a bundle on its opening weekend, and the same basic plot shot for a pittance goes on to make a fortune. The producer of the big movie may never know why the little one worked and his or hers didn’t.
Writing a script is much like building a car from scratch. You’re literally manufacturing the entire vehicle from the ground up, building tires out of rubber, stretching out your own brake lines, and building your own carburetor. You can end up with a vehicle, but it may not run. It may have a number of compound, complex problems, and fixing any one of them still doesn’t make the damn thing run. A screenplay can be just like this. It may never work no matter what you do, and you may never know why.
One of the things I’ll be urging you to do with these key tools discussed in Part One is to use them as precisely as possible. The tools and techniques create certain distinctions that help you cut through the native elusiveness of dramatic writing. They give you a set of talons that help you grab onto this slippery thing, dramatic writing, stop it in its tracks, and make it do what you need it to do. You don’t want to muddy the distinctions every time they become inconvenient. This is a central part of the craft of a dramatist. As William Thompson Price says in his book The Philosophy of Dramatic Principle and Method (W.T. Price Pub., New York, 1912): “In dividing the drama into distinct principles or elements we get at the function of each. By this means we are enabled to make an implement of a principle. We do not confound the uses of each.” Again, what I teach is the habits of mind of a trained dramatist. You can train yourself to think in certain ways that will help your stories work dramatically.
As an artist, you will use the tools you learn in this book to help make your script work, but you want to be the master of these tools, not their servant. The power saw doesn’t dictate how the house will look. Solid craft will help you be consistent as a writer—your material will tend to work and you’ll be able to successfully tackle a broad spectrum of plots and genres. Even though I teach classic structural technique, which is extremely useful to have as second nature, it’s important to note that literally anything can work. And either it works or it doesn’t. A movie is two hours of entertainment, period. It can be someone onstage shouting at a wall for two hours, and if viewers line up around the block for six months to see it, then it works. So learn the craft, but don’t worship it, and don’t limit yourself to how you apply it. Also bear in mind that precision of technique doesn’t negate the need for deep intuition, passion, explosive creativity, and dynamic storytelling. These are crucial for a storyteller and should not be underestimated, but if you combine them with substantial craft as a dramatist, then you can have a complete package as a screenwriter—and that is rare indeed.
Principle and Method
The two main things that I teach are principle and method. There are certain principles that tend to make drama work, and there are certain methods that embody those principles. If, for instance, you’re learning how to fly an airplane, it’s not enough to know which buttons to push at what time. You have to understand the principles of flight, and your understanding of those principles will inform your application of method. Then you know why you’re pushing this particular button at this time and what it does to the vacuum above the wings. The same thing is true in acupuncture. There are certain principles behind why acupuncture works—you’re balancing meridians and opening flow, etc., and there are certain specific methods that embody those principles—exactly where you put the needles and for how long.
Your understanding of the principles informs your application of the methods. I’ve had students who understood the underlying principles, but didn’t have a good grasp of the actual techniques, and that only gets them so far. I’ve also had students who were good at the tools, but didn’t know why they were using them and that’s working in a limited and blind way. You want to know them both inside and out. Essentially, the principle becomes an implement. The more you understand the principle behind a tool, the more you can adapt the tool as needed because you understand its function.
One of the benefits of teaching these tools for so long and using them hands-on with each student is that I’ve acquired more and more expertise in their use. A friend who has been a martial arts teacher for years said that because teaching forced him to stick to the basics, it solidified his foundation as a martial artist in a profound way. He said he realized that they are basics or first principles for good reason. David Mamet talks about this in On Directing Film:
It’s good, as the Stoics tell us, to have tools that are simple to understand and of a very limited number—so that we may locate and employ them on a moment’s notice. I think the essential tools in any worthwhile endeavor are incredibly simple. And very difficult to master. The task of any artist is not to learn many, many techniques but to learn the most simple technique perfectly. In doing so, Stanislavski told us, the difficult will become easy and the easy habitual, so that the habitual may become beautiful.
The tools that I teach in this book have served me well over the years, and I find them quite suitable for a complete working process.
A key thing to pay attention to as a screenwriter is storytelling because that’s the center of the whole process. Yes, as a dramatist you have to be able to shape the story to work as a performance medium, but it’s still storytelling, and if the story is lame then the drama will be lame. You can’t turn bad grapes into great wine.
Study the best storytellers, steep yourself in them, read all the time, listen to books on tape, see live theater, find stories from different cultures, and let them all inspire you, light you up, jump start your imagination, entertain you, and ignite you with their incredible amperage and magnitude. Refuse to be second rate. Boil with creative energy. Get crazy. Go wild. Free your mind. Get outside your normal storytelling ruts. Explosive creativity is a crucial thing to be able to tap into. Don’t ever let anybody order you to stick to what you know in life as the sole source for your stories! Astonish audiences, blow their friggin’ minds so they’ll never think the same way again, shake their worlds up, shake them awake, shatter their sense of how things are and how they must be. Violate their secure little place as an observer, lift them out of their seats, and plunge them into the world of greatness, of energy, of exuberant passion, exploding adrenaline, ecstatic freedom, wild savagery, absolute fun, true love, boundless energy, and indomitable spirit.
Think about how the greatest movies you’ve ever seen have transfigured you. Reflect upon how you felt while you were watching them, how you felt afterwards, how you needed that lift, that energy, that greatness of heart. Look at how you felt coming out of such classics as Braveheart, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Blade Runner, Ordinary People, American Beauty, Psycho, Lord of the Rings, Gandhi, The Sting, The Terminator, The Shawshank Redemption, The Bourne Identity, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lawrence of Arabia, Chinatown, Amadeus, On the Waterfront, Back to the Future, Platoon, Casablanca, The Seven Samurai, The Hustler, Twelve Monkeys, and In the Heat of the Night, to name a mere handful. Some of these films must have left an indelible mark on you, on your soul, and on your entire life. Do you even remember the last time that you were absolutely lit up, ecstatic, wildly free, totally energized, and utterly alive? People need that the same way they need oxygen, maybe even more so, because so many people limp though life without feeling truly alive much of the time. Some of the original storytellers were shamans, and their responsibility was to keep people free so they could experience the present fully, so they were awake and alive, so they could really live life.
Ask everybody you know who their favorite writers are, and why, and what those authors do to them. Listen to how they talk about them; look at them as they relive their pleasure, fear, energy, exuberance, adrenaline, and fun. Then go out and read them, or if you’re too busy, listen to them on tape as you drive to work (books on tape are free at the library), put a book by your bedside table, or on your treadmill. Turn off mindless TV and work, really work, to be one of the top storytellers in the world, in the history of the world. If you’re a screenwriter, then this is your job! People are starving, dying, for great stories, and something inside you is screaming to give it to them, otherwise you wouldn’t be a writer. If you’re going to do it, then be the best. Stun them, stagger them, and transfigure them with your storytelling passion.
Writing a Great Movie is a manual of plot creation, development, and construction, and I sincerely hope that it gives you some dependable tools to add to your screenwriter’s toolkit. It is not meant to displace other techniques, but to complement them and to round out your abilities as a dramatist. This book’s primary focus is on structural technique, so does not cover things like dialog, which is a separate topic and would require entire volume of its own. Remember that to maximize your ability to learn my tools you should have a real expertise in the films, Training Day, What Women Want, Minority Report, The Godfather, Tootsie, and Blade Runner because I work with them extensively to illustrate the tools in action. Best of luck with your writing, and please knock my socks off at the movies. That’s what it’s all about.