Dec 31, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Spoiler alert: this breakdown divulges information about the plot of the film.

Most story failures go all the way back to the premise, even and including big budget epics like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Sometimes the failure occurs because the writer doesn't develop the idea properly. For example, he or she may choose the wrong genre. But most often failures of premise occur because the original idea is weak, with huge structural problems lurking under the depths that don't surface until the writer tries to write the script. Indeed, many of the premise techniques that I talk about in the Great Screenwriting Class are designed to show you which ideas simply will not work, no matter how good a writer you are.

The premise of Benjamin Button is certainly intriguing. A man is born old and ages backward. He meets a girl when she is ten, they have a great love in the few years when their ages intersect, and then their biology tears them apart. But the key question is: what does this idea mean structurally? Writer Eric Roth is trying to write a tragic, epic love story. This very powerful form has become rare because it is so difficult to make the case that even a great love can affect a nation, and because it is so much easier now for lovers to get together and so much easier for them to part.

Against such obstacles, this premise immediately feels like nothing more than a gimmick to make tragic love possible. If you can't create real tragic love, just come up with a man who ages backward. Now that guy's going to have some major love problems.

Fantasy always involves creating a unique story world with its own rules. But these rules must be allegorical; they must highlight the world we really live in, including its emotional reality. But that doesn't happen here. For long stretches of the story, the two leads could be together. But one of them doesn't want to. This does not have the makings of epic or tragic love. When the two do get together as a couple, they enjoy a number of apparently blissful years. But Roth knows he has to break them apart. And because the story is based on the gimmick of the guy aging backward, he is forced to concoct one of the phoniest scenes in recent memory. Benjamin tells his wife, Daisy, that he doesn't want his new baby to miss having a real father, or his wife to see him as he grows into a child. So he just up and leaves, even though he has many years before he becomes a child.

Benjamin Button has an even larger structural problem embedded in the premise. A story that unfolds backward is extremely rare for a reason. It makes story causation virtually impossible. Or, to put it another way, you end up with the ultimate episodic story. An episodic story is one in which each event stands on its own - each scene in effect becoming a mini-story - and does not connect with the other events. The whole becomes less than the sum of the parts.

One of the only stories to unfold backwards successfully is Harold Pinter's Betrayal. But notice that Betrayal is built on a relationship between a man and a woman. It is an organic unit from first to last. With this as a foundation, the story's backward movement, instead of being episodic, induces the audience to focus on the original causal forces that ultimately drive these two people apart.

Benjamin Button is the story of one man's life. But his backward unfolding is based on the lowest form of causation, the biological. That's not what we are interested in when we see someone's life story. We want to see an unfolding based on the character's life choices. We want to see how the character's highest, most human qualities play out. It is these human elements that make plot possible, because plot is based, among other things, on the hero's ability to plot his own course. Because Benjamin Button tracks a man biologically getting young, he becomes nothing more than a freak who can't make any choice at all. He floats through life, an observer of the world who holds little interest for the audience.

Benjamin Button, like Slumdog Millionaire, is a myth story connected to a love story. But where the writer of Slumdog Millionaire created a structure that would build inevitably to a convergent point, the writer of Benjamin Button, trapped by his premise, could only string together moments. We watch myth stories because they give us a lifetime perspective, and therefore let us see a model of how to live a fulfilling life. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the only life lesson we learn is: don't be born old.


Spoiler alert: this breakdown divulges information about the plot of the film.

Drama is a story structure based on exploring a difficult moral issue in depth. It puts more emphasis on moral argument – concerning the right and wrong way to live – than any other genre, which is both a blessing a curse. In the Great Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting Classes, I explain in detail how to express moral argument through the story structure, instead of presenting it in dialogue like a sermon. When moral argument is done through structure it has tremendous impact on the audience, not because it tells them how to live but because it shows them, in deeply personal terms, the effects that moral decisions have on our lives.

Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, is a classic drama, and it shows clearly the strengths and limitations of the drama form. Because of the form’s emphasis on moral argument, the best drama tries to cut the particular issue as close to 51-49 as it can. And Shanley does this quite well. Sister Aloysius is a hard, bigoted, rule-bound woman who accuses another human being of a heinous crime based on no evidence but a feeling. But she is probably right. Father Flynn is a compassionate, gentle and decent man who wants to bring fun and community to the school. But he may be molesting boys. The boy whom the priest is accused of molesting is the first black child at the school. And Father Flynn is his only friend.

This balance and complexity is Doubt’s great strength and allows Shanley to create two powerful scenes between the nun and the priest that have the quality of a heavyweight fight. But Doubt’s great failure – and it is the most serious mistake a drama can make – is that the
story is nothing but moral argument. Drama must always be a story first, and that means plot and character development.

Plot and character development are the scaffolding on which moral argument must stand. Plot is based on surprise. It’s what delights us. It’s the game that seduces the audience into facing the pain the drama ultimately causes its characters and all who watch them. Character development is what makes the audience care about the people going through the struggle. It’s what makes the emotional connection.

Doubt has virtually no plot or character development. We see four characters dealing with a crisis that Sister Aloysius has brought to a head. Almost the entire story is played out in the two big scenes between the priest and the nun. Since the film has no plot or character development, it creates little emotional connection with the audience, so the argument remains intellectual and the mechanics of the drama come to the surface.

Without an emotional connection, everything in the film boils down to the quality of the moral accounting, and in this the drama fails. Sister Aloysius uses trickery to force the priest out, but this trickery is not unreasonable or extreme. And it indicates that the priest was probably guilty. So the film ends up supporting not so much her method of attack but her original certainty that he is guilty, even though it is based on nothing but a feeling. This is highly suspect.

Shanley seems to realize his moral accounting is skewed. So he has the nun experience an emotional breakdown in the final scene, in which she cries out that she has “such doubts.” But this moment is both intellectually unbelievable and emotionally phony. Try as hard as she can, Meryl Streep can’t bring it off. And if Meryl Streep can’t bring it off, there’s a good chance the problem is in the script. The result for the audience is a huge letdown. Because the nun’s final breakdown and confession of doubt is unbelievable, it doesn’t correct the imbalance of the moral argument.

Screenwriters who wish to write drama can learn much from this film, especially from its complexity and its hard-hitting dialogue. But most of all we can learn that even drama is a story first, and the old foundations of plot and character development are the keys to greatness.


Great drama is among the most advanced and challenging forms of storytelling. Sadly the glory days of drama in worldwide entertainment are long gone. Witness the highly acclaimed Frost/Nixon, the latest example of “much ado about nothing” in the drama form.

Frost/Nixon seems to have many of the elements that make up an excellent dramatic script, most especially the relationship between the hero and the main opponent. From the title itself, we can tell that writer Peter Morgan understands one of the first rules of great storytelling, which is that the hero is only as good as the person he fights. The opposition here between Frost and Nixon promises to be a heavyweight fight, between the charming, media-savvy English interviewer and the lying, bitter, anti-media American ex-President.

In fact, what we get is the most hollow, limp opposition I can remember. Sure there’s plenty of conflict. Frost has to fight not only Nixon and his chief handler, but also his own teammates who push him to be harder on the ex-President.

So why does this drama disappear into thin air when you try to engage it? The reason has to do with what’s really at stake in a drama. Good drama explores a moral issue in depth. And this moral issue has to be important, meaning that it has to affect people’s lives deeply.

At first glance, Frost/Nixon seems to deal with a huge moral issue: the most powerful man in the world abuses his power, attacks the Constitution and then creates an elaborate cover-up to hide his crimes and retain power. That would be the moral issue at stake if the film tracked Nixon and the events of the Watergate scandal.

But this film is about Nixon talking about Watergate. Which is why we get so much fake drama about how Frost has his own money on the line, how he has a reputation as a lightweight, how Nixon is a big, bad wolf, how Frost and Nixon are both trying to make a comeback and only one of them can succeed, etc. This is all puff and nonsense.

Break the film down structurally and you realize that Frost/Nixon is a film with 90 minutes of smoke-and-mirrors set-up for 5 minutes of payoff. And what is the payoff? Nixon admits he made a mistake and let down the American people. Whoa. What a revelation. Look all you want for a deep exploration of a major moral issue. You won’t find one.

The only reason this is surprising is that the actual Frost/Nixon interviews happened so long ago. Looking back at when the interviews were shown on television, I recall I watched them sporadically. And why was I not engrossed by this supposedly momentous landmark of television history? Because it was a long, crashing bore, endless hours of bloviating for the 5 minutes of payoff we get at the end of this film.

One reviewer has called this film “Ron Howard’s most mature work to date.” Please. That’s wrong on at least two counts. First, it’s another example of the sheer idiocy of the auteur theory. Ron Howard has relatively little to do with the success or failure of this drama. It’s all about the script, the play, the workings of the drama from the inside. Second, this is not good drama. It’s what is sometimes referred to, disparagingly, as the “well-made play.” Looks good on the gloss. But it’s hollow drama in the theater. And it’s hollow on film.

Which begs the question, why all the acclaim? We could blame it on the old excuse: you can fool all of the people some of the time. But the real reason for the hoopla is the virtual disappearance of the drama form in Hollywood film. Movies like Frost/Nixon, Doubt, and Revolutionary Road come out at the end of the year, at awards time, and because they have the audacity to address adult issues, reviewers, who are used to watching cartoons, are so shocked they call these films brilliant.

Sure we might all want to have the success of these dramatists. But don’t be fooled. If you want to write drama, a dying form, you can’t get away with smoke and mirrors. You have to have real substance. And you have to know how express that substance through a building conflict between two virtually equal sides. Master that and reviewers will call you brilliant too. And you’ll earn it.

Dec 8, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

All the praise for Slumdog Millionaire has been focused on Danny Boyle for his energetic and colorful direction. No question Boyle's direction is terrific. But the real key to the film's success is the script by Simon Beaufoy. Using a unique story structure and scene weave, Beaufoy combines the myth and love genres with some advanced screenwriting techniques to build his story to a stunning climax.

To appreciate Beaufoy's accomplishment, we first have to look at is challenge. This is the story of a "slumdog" orphan boy who grows up in Mumbai with his older brother and ends up competing for the big prize on the game show, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Here are just some of the difficulties inherent in the premise: a boy as main character, a story that covers ten years, a mix of myth and love story forms - two genres that are notoriously tough to put together - and keeping the hero's desire for the girl believable and strong. In the Great Screenwriting Class I spend a lot of time on specific techniques for developing the premise, since this is where 99% of writers fail. To win the premise game, you first have to identify the structural problems buried in the idea, then come up with structural solutions to solve them. And you have to be able to do this before you write the script.

Beaufoy's solution to the daunting challenges of his premise is a triple cross-cut framing device. In this advanced technique (see the Advanced Screenwriting Class and the Blockbuster story software for details), the writer cuts between the hero, Jamal, being tortured by the cops who suspect he has been cheating, his performance on the game show, and the story of his life. This is a classic example of how a non-chronological structure is often the right one for a story. But it is very risky, because this much cross-cutting can suck out all the narrative drive.

So why does it work here? One of the big problems of telling a myth story that covers many years in a character's life is that it becomes extremely episodic, meaning that individual events stand out and don't build in a single, narrative whole. A storytelling framing device literally puts brackets around these events. They are told from the mind of the hero, so they gain a unity they would not have if told chronologically from an omniscient narrator.

Using a child as the main character poses all kinds of problems. A child has limited awareness, he is usually a victim and the audience senses that the most dramatic elements will come near the end of the depicted life. That's why Beaufoy uses the other two cross-cut lines. By beginning with the boy grown-up, being tortured, then cutting quickly to his performance on the game show, Beaufoy brings the most dramatic element of this boy's life story to the front of the tale. Structurally, he has taken the battle step - one of the seven major structure steps that usually occurs at the end of the story - and cut it into pieces. The audience is constantly reminded of the most dramatic moment of the story, and it too builds slowly and steadily as the hero moves closer to winning the big prize.

This also allows Beaufoy to connect the game show questions to the key events of the boy's life, a technique that not only undercuts the episodic quality of the story but also makes the thematic point that any life is a combination of chance, freedom and necessity.

The torture and game show lines solve another problem inherent in the premise: they are the primary way Beaufoy connects the myth form to the love story. Myth usually covers vast time and space. Love is compact, driven by white-hot passion that tends to dissipate if the story travels. The torture and game show frame allows Beaufoy to establish Jamal's love desire at the very beginning of the story, even though chronologically the hero encounters the girl of his dreams when he is a little boy and then doesn't see her for long stretches of his life. This makes the love story the primary genre, which is a much more unified form than myth.

The writer was also fortunate that the writer of the original novel, Vikas Swarup, chose the picaresque tale as the basis of the original story. A picaresque tale is a kind of comic myth in which the hero is a rogue-trickster character from the lower class who succeeds by his wits and in so doing highlights the corruption of the society. This sub-genre is the basis of such classics as Tom Jones, Oliver Twist, and Huckleberry Finn. In the "greatest techniques" section of the Blockbuster software, I talk about this rogue-trickster character as possibly the single important element in blockbuster films. From the very beginning this boy is a schemer, able to succeed and even escape death through his quick mind. Faced with terrible poverty and corruption, he nonetheless survives and flourishes. There is even an Indian version of Oliver Twist when a man saves the brothers from their poverty only to force them into his society of beggars.

This film is worth careful study by any writer hoping to master advanced storytelling techniques, as well as to learn how to bring together genre forms in unique combinations.

Nov 26, 2008


Changeling is a harrowing story of one woman’s nightmare when she tries to find her missing son. For screenwriters it shows the benefits, but also the difficulty, of combining the thriller with the social drama.

Drama is one of the great storytelling forms, but it has become rare in a Hollywood that requires all its movies to have blockbuster potential. Most writers of classic drama have moved to television where the level of writing has never been higher. But to get a drama made in film, you have to combine it with a more sensational genre that can pull in the big audience. Enter the thriller.

At first glance, this marriage of forms looks like a good idea. Social drama lets you explore human nature and social conflict in depth, while the thriller gives the story excitement, jeopardy and narrative drive. But these same qualities dictate virtually opposite story movements. Drama wants to slow down and dig deep, find the underlying causes and explore the subtleties of human character. Thriller wants to charge ahead, to find out who is attacking the hero. No subtlety here; it’s yes or no, he did it or he didn’t.

This is the crux of the problem that Changeling writer, J. Michael Straczynski, had to solve to make this film work. The story begins with the social drama. The hero, Christine Collins, returns home from work to find her son missing. Months later the police bring her a boy they claim is her son, even though she insists he isn’t. Her desire is simple: she wants her son back. But that creates a big structural problem for the writer. She can’t act on her desire. All she can do is repeat it to the corrupt cops. And while this generates anger in the audience at the arrogant injustice of the police who treat her as an incompetent child, it doesn’t drive the story forward.

This early part of the film also highlights another flaw common to the social drama. The hero has no moral need. All immorality is located in the opposition, the corrupt cops. This creates a good vs. evil contrast that is the kiss of death for good social drama, and exacerbates the hero’s position as a victim already established by her reactive desire line.

With the social drama line slowing to a halt, Straczynski introduces the investigation line and the story takes off with a burst of energy that’s palpable. A cop in the same precinct as the corrupt captain follows up on a kid’s claim that he helped a serial killer murder boys. The resulting investigation is not complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. It gives the story a goal with clear action beats. The writer then cross-cuts this line with a thriller line that comes from the corrupt captain sending Christine to an insane asylum for claiming the police gave her the wrong boy.

Does this story have a double desire line, and therefore two spines? You bet. And it does feel like two movies that have been cobbled together. But we also see here a writer making a unique story work on its own terms. Most stories have one or more structural roadblocks built in; they are part of the animal. If, as a professional, you have to make a story work, you pull from your bag of techniques and get the job done. Straczynski knows that neither desire line will support the story on its own. But by cross-cutting them, he creates a track with enough narrative drive to take us to the end of the social drama.

But not without severe costs. The story’s structural flaws prevent this from being a great social drama. Yes, the corrupt captain and chief of police are brought low and the mother is publicly redeemed. But subtlety and an exploration of deeper causes are nowhere to be found.

So what can we learn from Changeling? I’ve already mentioned the importance of making the story work, even if you have to break a few of the rules of good drama. The lesson of never letting perfection get in the way of success is always good for writers to remember. Changeling also shows us the power, and the difficulty, of combining drama with thriller. The key structural element is desire. If possible, try to turn the two desire lines – of drama and thriller – into one. Each line should help solve the other: investigating the crime should lead to deeper layers of the social conflict while the argument about the social issue should lead the hero to new clues about the crime.

Finally, Changeling shows us one of the keys to dramatizing a real-life story: finding the right frame. A true story must hit the same seven major structure steps as a fictional story. But a true story restricts you in how you find those steps, since you can’t just create them from thin air. Instead you have to focus on the frame, where to begin and end the story, and that means you have to start by identifying your battle scene. In Changeling, everything comes to a dramatic head at the trial, actually a cross-cut between the trial of the killer and the trial of the LA police. This battle brings a convergence of the two lines that this real-life drama-thriller desperately needs.

If you are interested in how to tell any story with maximum dramatic power, regardless of genre, look at our 22 Step Great Screenwriting Class. For tips on advanced drama and structuring true stories, check out the Advanced Screenwriting Class.


Life is a 1-hour drama that has been trying to break through after a strike-shortened season last year. I hope it does because it adds a number of fun twists to the police procedural that is the staple of American TV drama.

In the TV Drama Class, I go into all of the structural elements that must be present to construct a successful show. One of these has to do with the genre. Like film, TV requires that you take an existing popular genre or combination of genres and give it a unique twist. Life is a mix of detective, crime and buddy picture, and that’s a pretty strong combination. Yes, we’ve seen cop shows with partners many times before (for example, Law and Order SVU), but they aren’t using the buddy picture techniques. A buddy picture is a kind of action comedy in which the buddies form some kind of odd couple. The buddies love each other in a platonic way, but they act like a married couple, with constant lighthearted bickering.

In Life, the odd couple is Charlie Crews, a cop who was framed for a multiple murder-robbery and sent to jail before gaining his freedom and returning to the force along with $50,000,000 in “We’re sorry” money. He’s gained a Zen sensibility during his twelve years behind bars. And that drives his partner nuts. She’s Dani Reese, a practical, by-the-book cop who also just happens to be drop-dead gorgeous, like any number of other drop-dead gorgeous cops in Hollywood crime shows (for example, Law and Order SVU). Just once I’d love it if a character on one of these shows would ask our investigator if she realizes she’s beautiful enough to be an actress.

The two lead characters play well off each other, and I believe one of the reasons this show hasn’t done better is that the writers have not played this element up even further. One reason might be that the Reese character lacks detail. For a buddy picture to work the buddies must be equal. The writers have given Crews tremendous detail, to such a degree that he is clearly the hero of the show. This imbalance is a big mistake. William Goldman once told me that when they were shooting the early scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Butch has to fight Harvey for leadership of the gang, director George Roy Hill kept Sundance on his horse to visually increase Sundance’s stature relative to Butch. We forget that before the movie came out, Robert Redford was a nobody and Paul Newman was Paul Newman.

This may be why Life’s writers retooled the show this season by giving Reese and Crews a new boss, Captain Tidwell, with whom Reese could get romantically involved. Donal Logue, who plays the boss, is a funny actor and a welcome addition to the show. But while the move has boosted Reese’s importance a bit, the relationship between her and the boss is completely unbelievable. Hopefully the writers will strengthen this line, while also highlighting the more important buddy relationship between Reese and Crews.

Another structural element that determines a successful TV drama is the weave of the desire line. In other words, what gets accomplished in each episode and how are the episode’s goals intercut? Life uses a technique found in most cop shows of combining two main goals, one short-term and one long-term. The short-term goal is to solve the crime of that episode. The long-term goal is Crews’s determination to find the cops who framed him for the murder-robbery. The individual investigations all have a quirky quality that sets them apart from the standard crimes we see on most procedurals. For example, in a recent episode, Crews and Reese had to solve the murder of a mall Santa they find five minutes before the department store opens for holiday rush on Black Friday. They realize too late that the horde of hungry shoppers is going to trample their crime scene, and then discover that the shoppers have apparently taken Santa’s body as well.

The long-term investigation is more problematic. The conspiracy behind the murder-robbery and Crews’ frame-up is full of juicy possibilities, including one suspect who is Reese’s father. The brilliant Zen cop who sits in his mansion trying to unravel the conspiracy that took twelve years of his life is, besides being very un-Zen, great stuff. Which is why it’s been frustrating that the writers have done relatively little with it. I suspect that’s because they realize that once Crews figures out who did it, this line is over. The show’s creator has painted himself into a bit of a corner here. This concept is central to the premise of the show, and probably a good part of the reason Life got on the air in the first place. But it’s a big dead end when it comes to the extendability of the show.

Still, the writers must deal with this line. Giving it one or two scenes a show doesn’t work. Ignoring the line only makes it seem half-baked and unrelated to the main investigation in each episode. If the writers can expand this conspiracy from a single event in the past where Crews was framed to an ongoing, present-day corruption in the LAPD, this buddy picture of a Zen mind-master and his pragmatic, beautiful partner will turn into the hottest show on TV.

Oct 22, 2008

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Every genre has unique structural elements that make it a challenge to write well. But the most difficult genre of all may be the love story, especially the romantic comedy. The love story turns on two contradictory requirements. On one hand, a love story should take only ten minutes. Two people are attracted to one another, and the rest is negotiation. On the other hand, the story must last a long time for the love to be believable to the audience. The audience can’t just see the two people fall in love. They have to feel it, and that takes a lot of screen time.

These two contradictory elements account for many of the 12 unique story beats that make up the genre. For example, when the two leads first meet, they always fight. Of course, this is completely unrealistic; next time you’re interested in someone, go start a fight with them and see what happens. But starting a love story with a fight makes a lot of structural sense. Remember, you have to create more than ten minutes of story.

If we look at Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, by Lorene Scafaria from a novel by Rachel Cohen and David Levithan, we can see writers struggling with the special challenges of the love story. The film relies on textural details, especially music, to make it feel original and fresh. But because the writers never cracked the structural essentials of a good romance, the audience gets little story and no feeling of love.

The key structural mistake in this script has to do with Desire, one of the 7 major structure steps in any story and especially crucial in a romance. The main desire line in a romance, and the spine of the story, is the desire the two characters have for each other. This is why the classic Hollywood love story tracks the man’s quest for the woman. She opposes that desire for most of the story, and they finally get together at the end.

Notice that approach establishes a desire line and conflict for 90 plus minutes, and solves the first big difficulty of the love genre. But notice also that this is essentially the structure of an action story. And while this structure gives the audience plenty of time to feel the love developing between the two characters, most of what the characters are feeling toward each other is not love, but conflict.

The writers of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist wanted to use a different love story structure, one not based on the guy chasing the resisting girl. That’s a great idea in theory. But in practice, they chose to change the primary desire line from a passion between the two characters to an outside desire the characters share, which is to find where an underground band is playing. True, this gave the writers a line that extends for 90 plus minutes, with plenty of time for the two leads to get to know one another and fall in love.

But at what cost? The story is extremely episodic as the leads go from one location to another in search of a band the audience doesn’t care about. Which means that while there are multiple events, there is no plot. And because the driving desire is not between the two leads, this remains a friend story, not a love story.

The screenwriter, apparently realizing the lack of urgency in the main desire line, added a secondary desire where the leads search for a drunken friend who is lost in the big city. But this just adds an unrelated story line (not a true sub-plot). And watching a young woman stumble around drunk for 90 minutes is anything but funny.

We can certainly learn some lessons here. If you want to write a love story that doesn’t rely on the old man-chases-woman schematic, by all means do it. It will set you apart and give you the opportunity to write what I call, in the Love Story Class, a “true love story.” But don’t make the mistake of substituting an outside desire line for the desire that must be the spine of any good and moving love story, which is the craving that each has for the other. Never lose sight of what is really at stake in a love story, and that’s love itself.

If you would like to learn all of the beats of a great love story, along with how to write each of the many sub-genres of love, including romantic comedy, take a look at the Love Story Class and Love Story Software. Very few writers have mastered this tricky form, but it can be done. And the payoff is huge.

Sep 22, 2008

The Teen Movie

It’s back to school time, and for many screenwriters that means time to finish the spec script that will be your calling card to the big shots. One of the first rules of success for screenwriters is choosing a story form Hollywood wants to buy. Certainly one of those forms is the teen movie, as popular now as ever, in television as well as in film. To write any story form well, you have to study how it works under the surface, that is, structurally.

The first thing to understand about teen movies is that they aren’t actual genres. They are stories about a major kind of character change. In the Great Screenwriting Class, I talk about the five great character changes in storytelling, and this particular one is known as “coming of age.” Here someone changes from child to adult – not physically, but emotionally and morally.

All fiction asks the basic question: how do adults grow? Teen movies focus on the first stage of becoming an adult, which usually involves learning how to break free of conformity and become an individual.

What’s changed over the years is the nature of that conformity. In the original teen move, Rebel Without A Cause, it was the conformity of the parents’ world, the 9-5 job, the man in the gray flannel suit. The Graduate (essentially a teen movie even though the hero is a college grad) continued this basic contrast, with the parents’ world portrayed as even richer and more morally bankrupt (“plastics”). American Graffiti, probably the best teen movie ever made, was a turning point. Within the strict confines of small town America, the conformity changed to being primarily among the teens themselves.

This opposition of individual vs. conforming teens was then codified in The Breakfast Club, still the model for teen films today. There conformity among the students was pushed so far that even the few differences that existed within the student body were themselves stereotypes and categories: the jock, the nerd, the princess, the bad boy outcast, the bad girl outcast, etc.

Looking at the current teen movie, you might not realize that the form is as old as storytelling, going all the way back to the myth stories of the boy becoming king and the girl becoming queen. Teen movies are always connected to some genre, usually comedy (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Porky’s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, American Pie) or romantic comedy (Superbad, Juno, Clueless, She’s All That, Legally Blond, Risky Business), but also straight drama (Rebel Without A Cause, Romeo and Juliet) and even horror (Carrie) and fantasy (Back to the Future, Harry Potter).

But the deeper foundation of all these teen films – what connects them all – is the fairy tale form. The fairy tale is one of the major variations to organic story structure (see the Great Screenwriting Class for the 10 special story beats of the fairy tale). In the teen movie version, the kingdom is high school. The ball is the prom where the new king and queen are crowned. Because teen movies are about crossing the threshold into adulthood, the prom becomes nothing less than the archetypal rite of passage. Especially for high school girls becoming women, the prom is like a practice wedding, with the dress taking on almost magical, talismanic powers.

Normally we think of high school as that place and organization where the student must learn the intellectual tools that are supposed to prepare him/her for working in the adult world. But teen movies tell us that the real learning in high school is social, and it involves trying to reach the highest status within one’s own gender and “scoring” with the most attractive person from the other gender.

Fairy tales are about extreme success. Applied to the modern life experience of high school, teen fairy tales show that even in a democracy, all people are not created equal. Some students have great beauty, wealth or athletic ability. Most don’t. But the first lesson in teen fairy tales – the hero’s self-revelation – is that while people aren’t created equal in talent, they are equal in rights, including the right to be treated with decency and respect.

The deeper lesson of these stories is how one learns to become a unique and moral individual. This element is easiest to see when the teen movie is done as a romantic comedy. The male hero’s goal is sex, preferably with the prettiest girl in school. But his need is to learn to leave his male friends and their reptilian views of all women behind and form a new community with one woman, who will show him the power and value of intimacy and actually help him find and take pride in his true individuality.

The lead female in teen romantic comedies has usually been the beautiful object of affection for the boy. Or, in a slight variation, she appears to be a nerd but is really a beauty underneath. In true fairy tale form, the ugly duckling turns out to be a princess.

Especially in teen romances of the last ten years, the heroine has erased the classic distinction between the smart outcast and the pretty bimbo. Instead, the outcast and the pretty girl are one and the same. Most prominently in Legally Blond (a teen movie even though it’s set in law school), the lead is both smart and pretty. This girl embraces her great looks and femininity and is proud to use her unique strengths as a woman. She is often opposed by other beautiful teenage girls, but they are petty, jealous, glammed-up and lack the one trait that the lead has always had, compassion.

These teen love stories are often about the difference between true class and false class. False class comes from looks and money. True “class” comes from character. These stories say it is okay to want beauty and money in life and to try to get them, but you have to go after them in a decent way.

If you want to write a coming of age movie, focus on modernizing the fairy tale form. Connect the story to one or two genres to pay the genre dues that Hollywood demands. But above all, transcend the form. As you can see, the teen movie has a long history, so you must tell your story in a unique way to have any chance of standing out from the crowd.

Aug 5, 2008

The Dark Knight

Spoiler alert: this breakdown divulges information about the plot of the film.

For anyone who wants to look beneath its action surface, The Dark Knight proves that a movie can be a huge hit because of theme, not in spite of it. The Dark Knight is the closest thing to a fictional exploration of moral philosophy to come out of Hollywood in a long time, and that includes No Country for Old Men. Amazingly, writers Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, and David Goyer create this complex moral expression on the foundation of superhero action crime genre.

The writers begin their elegant construction with the depiction of the main character, Batman, and here they had a tremendous advantage going in. Of all superhero characters, Batman highlights and consistently questions the very concept of the hero and the savior. He is truly a dark knight, concerned with justice but also willing to use illegal and immoral means to achieve it.

He is also deeply aware of the negative effects a savior can have on the general populace. He knows, and probably believes in, the great moral principle of “If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” But he is unable to live the principle when faced with so much injustice. And when, in The Dark Knight, the bad guys escalate their evil acts, Batman is dragged into a war of tit for tat that soils everyone. Interestingly, Batman’s garbled voice has a strange resemblance to Clint Eastwood’s, especially in his Dirty Harry films.

In the Blockbuster story development software, we place a lot of emphasis on the “character web,” and The Dark Knight uses this crucial technique to perfection. The first character to be compared to Batman is the main opponent, The Joker. A lot has been written about Heath Ledger’s terrific performance. But we need to look at what he built his performance on, and that is found in the script. Non-writers might think I’m referring to the dialogue, but I’m not. The writers constructed this character to drive two major story elements, the moral argument (theme) and the plot.

The classic crime story is based on a master criminal who believes he is above the law and society itself. The Joker is just such a character, a genius psychopath whose massive intellect is shown not so much in dialogue as in his ability to plot. He accuses Dent and Batman of being schemers. But in fact he is the master schemer, a modern Moriarty, who acts, not out of greed or revenge, but for the game. And he is better at the game than anyone else, so much so that we have the rare example of a story with too much plot.

The Joker is literally the author of Gotham City, constructing criminal plots that will remake the city to express his moral vision. Many have called The Joker a nihilist, a man in love with chaos. But this is a serious misreading. If Batman is the Dark Knight, The Joker is the Dark Philosopher. The entire plot of The Dark Knight is a series of moral conundrums The Joker creates to expose what he believes is the true animal nature of mankind. Tracking the beats of the crime story that goes all the way back to its originator, Crime and Punishment, The Joker creates ever more difficult versions of the genre’s central question: What would you do if you had to choose between two bad options?

First, does Batman expose his true identity or let the Joker kill someone every day? Then does he let Dent take the risk of getting killed to pull The Joker out of hiding? Does he save Rachel, his true love, or Dent, the righteous hope of the city? Does he listen in on the entire city in order to save a few?

For the film’s final choice, the writers use the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma, central to game theory and moral philosophy. In Prisoner’s Dilemma, two prisoners suspected of a crime are placed in separate cells. Each is given the following choice: If you both remain silent, you both get only six months in jail. If you both confess, you both get 5 years. If you remain silent but your partner confesses, he goes free and you get 10 years in jail. As you can see, the only real choice each person can make is to confess, since neither can risk the harsh 10-year sentence trusting that his partner will remain silent.

In The Dark Knight, two ships filled with passengers are given the choice of pushing a button to blow up the other ship before a time deadline. If one ship fails to blow up the other, The Joker will destroy them both. This sets up a unique battle in which not only two forces but also two entire moral systems are brought into opposition. The battle is marred only by the fact that the writers don’t play true to the reality about human beings they have carefully crafted throughout the film. In other words, the people on the boats don’t make the believable choice.

Though The Dark Knight has too much plot, resulting in a movie that is at least 20 minutes too long, its plot is worth studying to see masters at work. These writers use a vast array of plot techniques, and a lot of professional writers I know, while bemoaning so many false endings, have said the plotting is what they studied the most. Ironically, one of the main techniques these writers use is character web, proving again that at the deepest level of good storytelling, plot and character are the same. I’ve already mentioned the plotting power the main opponent brings to the story. But plot also comes from the second lead, Harvey Dent, as well as a number of other characters who appear to be friends but are really enemies, or appear to be enemies but are really friends.

Screenwriters and storytellers can learn all kinds of lessons from The Dark Knight. Perhaps the most important is placing all story elements at the service of the larger moral argument, and expressing that argument primarily through the story structure. Using the crime genre as its foundation, The Dark Knight focuses on whether someone can remain a hero when the opposition becomes increasingly ruthless, a question that is central to our world. But as the cop in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil says about how hard it is being a cop, “It's supposed to be (tough)... A policeman's job is only easy in a police state.”

Interestingly, the writers go all the way back to the classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for their ending. When it turns out the hero of a gunfight didn’t actually kill the bad guy, the newspaperman refuses to print the truth. “When the legend becomes fact,” he says, “print the legend.” Batman decides to let Harvey Dent die a hero, so the people will have hope in justice, while he accepts his role as the scapegoat. With a subtle flip on the ending of Shane, Lieutenant Gordon’s little boy doesn’t say, “Batman, come back.”

The Dark Knight is a writer’s genre movie, even a transcendent one, and screenwriters would do well to study it closely.

Jul 28, 2008

Mama Mia!

I had no idea the entire musical oeuvre of ABBA was really about a girl looking for her true father before she gets married on a Greek Island. This is the storyline on which the writer hangs 18 ABBA songs in Mamma Mia! It gives you an idea of the immense popularity of ABBA’s music that this combination of story and song has produced a worldwide theatrical smash hit. As if 400 million records sold didn’t already tell us this.

If you have to write the book or script for a musical, the big problem you have to solve is how to use the songs to drive the story. Otherwise story and song become two separate tracks and the audience waits for the song to end so they can get back to what happens next.

But in Mamma Mia! this problem is reversed. The storyline is so lame, absurd and emotionally phony that the audience can’t wait to hear another catchy song to find relief from the awful script. I’ve never been a big ABBA fan, but during the course of this movie I came to believe that they were the greatest musical geniuses in history; such was the chasm between story and song.

And then there is the matter of the casting. Any director will tell you that 80-90% of the job is who you pick to play the roles. This has to be the worst cast movie in modern memory. Most of these actors are at least 20 years too old for their parts. Watching 60+ Meryl Streep cavorting like a 15-year-old teeny bopper was one of the five most painful moments of my life. And Pierce Brosnan will surely be nominated for best statue imitating a person trying to sing. In fact, the casting of this movie was so mind-boggling that I realized it was actually a stroke of genius in which the filmmakers were using aged movie stars to highlight the artistic absurdity of the entire decade of the 70s.

What can a screenwriter learn from this train wreck? Well, first, be sure to make friends with the most popular candy pop band in history so they will give you the rights to 18 of their songs, and then you can write a horrible script tying them all together and no one will care. Second…

Jun 25, 2008

Sex and the City

Spoiler Alert: this breakdown divulges information about the end of the film.

Sex and the City was a revolutionary TV show. Not because it showed women having lots of sex. That part was always unbelievable. Even young hip New York women don’t have that much sex with that many different partners or they’d be dead. No, Sex and the City was a big deal because it showed women as main characters in the story of their lives, not as the supporting girlfriend to the male hero. It showed women in the day-to-day business of work and love – the very fabric of human life – and it didn’t apologize for the fact that women craft their lives differently than men. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, try traveling the world as I did during the run of the show and hearing women from every conceivable nationality rave about this show.

Over the years the show went from Sex in the City to Relationships in the City, which was more believable but less fun. Especially when two of the women got themselves into relationships that were just plain dumb. Smart lawyer Miranda with Steve the bartender was painful to watch, and hear, since Steve’s how-dumb-can-I-talk voice was like nails on a chalkboard. And Charlotte’s marriage to the impotent mama’s boy was a clear case of theme driving plot into never-never land.

Now comes the movie and it is surprisingly effective. I say surprisingly because turning a TV show into a good movie is extremely difficult, with a very low success rate. There are a number of reasons for the success of Sex (and no, the sex is not one of them). But let me focus on two. The first is the character web on which the book and the show were originally built. Character web is a crucial structural element for any work of fiction, in whatever medium, but it’s especially important in TV. In the TV Drama Class I point out that mainstream Hollywood film emphasizes a single main character going after a single goal with a one-time plot that is usually highly intricate. TV, on the other hand, emphasizes a community of characters the audience wants to visit once a week, with plot being secondary and often predictable. Plot has grown more important on TV for “24” and “Lost”, but they are still the exception.

With character community being primary, how you set up the character oppositions for the leads of the show is crucial. The four women on Sex represent four unique approaches to how modern single women craft their work-love lives. There’s the driven professional woman, the narcissistic sexaholic, and the Princess who expects life to be a fairy tale. At the center of this mix is Carrie, a combination of all three who is the only truly well-rounded character of the four.

This highly-differentiated character web sets up a second major reason for the success of the Sex movie, the story weave. In the Advanced Screenwriting Class I talk about an advanced storytelling strategy called the branching structure. In multiple character stories, each character represents a branch. The trick is how you combine these branches without destroying all narrative drive. If you crosscut equally between many characters, the story has to track too many simultaneous actions and narrative drive disappears.

But because Carrie is the first among equals in the character web, the branching story weave here is more like a single trunk with three other branches extending off. Carrie’s story provides the strong spine that a mainstream Hollywood movie requires while the stories of the other women provide sub-plots, with each being a variation on the main line. Luckily Carrie has that one big event that can provide the spine of the movie, her pending wedding to Big. This event also focuses the theme of the film so that each of the four women can present a different approach to the question: how do women deal with the deeply-ingrained fairy tale image of being married to a man?

Unfortunately this event left me quite ambivalent. I too wanted the fairy tale ending; boys watch Disney movies too. But emotionally it wasn’t right. It wasn’t earned. Here is a guy who has “jilted” Carrie for the entire TV show, then does it again at the altar, and she takes him back one more time. The writer justifies it through the Miranda subplot with Steve (also fake), with the statement that “You’ve got to forgive.” Well, no, you don’t. If the guy keeps blowing you off and humiliating you time and again in the process, at some point it’s the mark of a mature person to say, “Get the hell out of my life.”

Of course, Carrie’s marriage to Big does set up the inevitable sequel to this blockbuster film. Anyone want to place bets on Big being faithful?

Jun 16, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

“What a drag it is getting old.” Yes, Mick, it is. Cultural icons are supposed to be immune from old age. But actors, even action heroes like Harrison Ford, are not. And that has a ripple effect through this entire movie.

Try as he might, Ford can’t convincingly do the moves of Indy in his prime. And no amount of editing or movie slight of hand can hide it. So the story mechanics, and this genre has a lot of them, show through in glaring detail.

Perhaps as a compensation, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has gone slapstick. A lot of the action scenes look like the Keystone Cops. As a comic book action serial, the Indiana Jones movies have always walked the fine line between serious action – where death is believable – and comic action – where the audience can come along on the joyride. But when you go too far into the comical, and particularly slapstick, you run into the problem of the later Matrix films. The first Matrix was man-on-man conflict where the fights seemed real and there was some suspense about whether the hero would win. The later Matrix films were one against a hundred, so the punches looked like cartoons and there was never any doubt of victory.

Screenwriter David Koepp, a seasoned pro, tries to “take the stink off” the problem by admitting Indy’s age up front. He also tries to make the story personal, similar to the successful strategy used in the Batman series (Batman Begins) and the James Bond series (Casino Royale). Koepp brings back Marian and introduces a young sidekick whose Brando motorcycle uniform is suddenly hip again compared to 40s Indy. But it doesn’t work. Indy is the classic rogue action hero, and trying to turn him into a family man just made me cringe.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull also suffers from a major structural flaw in the script, a weak opponent. The action-fantasy form has a clear divide between those films with a comical opponent – which are usually failures – and those that have a believably deadly opponent – which are usually a success. Here we have a Soviet death mistress, played by Cate Blanchett, who looks like she’s straight out of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Blanchett’s voice and hair make her such a dead ringer for Natasha, I was waiting for Boris to show up and at least make the movie funny. But alas he never came.

Finally Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull dies from no plot. In the Action Class, I explain why this is always a big problem in the action form. Most screenwriters don’t know that action is not the same as plot, and that if not handled properly, action will kill your plot. This is especially true in James Bond-like action stories in which an unbeatable hero is challenged in a series of all-out attacks. The story becomes a series of stunts, of action set pieces, each the same beat with a different skin. In short, no plot.

Not that any of this has hurt the box office. But you only have to look at the second Pirates of the Caribbean to know that the script is not the only source of a film’s success, or even the major one. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull shows us once again George Lucas’s ability to create a cultural icon that can grab the imagination of the world.

John Truby

May 30, 2008

Iron Man review

It’s an easy bet to say that Iron Man will be the best action picture of the ’08 summer. Some of the credit has to go to the casting and performances of Robert Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow. They’re so good it makes us realize these two actors should be in a lot more movies than they are. But most of the credit has to go to the script.

There’s a natural tendency to think of the action genre as the most director-dependent of all the forms, what with all their spectacle, staging, and special effects. But this is just another example of where conventional wisdom is wrong. Invariably when an action film goes wrong, it’s because of the script. And when it stands above the crowd, it’s definitely the script.

Comic book action films like Iron Man look deceptively easy to write. Just a fun, heroic character flying around and fighting evil villains. It’s actually a tricky form, because you are combining three genres: action, fantasy and comedy. In this script, writers Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway avoided every pitfall of the form and made all the right structural choices.

One choice was already made for them. As the film that introduces the character to the audience, Iron Man is an origin story, and that is always the best story in a series. Think of Batman Begins vs. all the others, even the Nicholson one.

But the key choice the writers made that set this action film apart had to do with the characters. In the Action Class, I talk a lot about how to create characters that have the capability to change, a structural element that becomes even more important when you combine action with fantasy. Here in Iron Man, instead of a superhero who is super heroic, main character Tony Stark has a number of weaknesses and is in many ways an unlikable person. Instead of being a one-note fighter for good, he is a real man with a deep need that is both believable and relevant in today’s world.

The writers take this same approach to the opposition. Instead of battling a silly, over-the-top villain, Stark must go up against a deadly Afghan warlord and a corporate boss who will let nothing get in the way of profit. These opponents are not detailed or deep in any way. We’ve certainly seen them many times before. But they are believable and relevant to the audience in the real world, and that gives the contest power beyond the boundaries of the comic book world.

This grounded and real character work makes it even more surprising that this is also the funniest script of the season. The action-comedy combination has been popular for a long time (it’s one of the seven comedy sub-forms I detail in the Comedy Class). In the past this has been used most often in action-crime films, like Beverly Hills Cop, as a way to show that the action hero is so good he can make jokes in the face of death. But here the comedy is used to undercut the natural pretentiousness of the superhero character. The writers extend this technique by having the main character make fun of the comic superhero form itself. This again makes him seem more real as he performs his heroic deeds, because the comic book heroes are all those other guys.

The combination of action and fantasy is now virtually the sole genre of summer blockbuster films. It’s obviously one of the main products that Hollywood wants to buy in their never-ending quest for worldwide popularity. If you want to write an action fantasy, do not underestimate it. Going back to the deep structure techniques necessary for any great story is your only guarantee of success.

May 28, 2008

Son of Rambow

When you're making an indie film, you're always looking for ways to save money. And if you're smart the first and foremost place to do that is in the script.

One great strategy is to make a virtue of having no money - the old turn-lemons-into-lemonade trick. You know you can't compete with the big budget pictures on production values. So you come up with a story that relies on amateur video. This was the main technique used by sex, lies and videotape, generally considered the beginning of the modern indie film movement in the US. And it was used in The Blair Witch Project, one of the highest grossing indie films of all time. It's also used to great effect in Son of Rambow.

Of course, this strategy won't mean a thing if your story is not well structured. Ironically, script is even more important in indie filmmaking than in big budget movies, because the script is usually all you have going for you. And it doesn't cost any more to write a good one. Son of Rambow is a love story between two young friends, and writer Garth Jennings came up with a structure that not only carries a lot of comedy, it packs a surprising amount of emotional impact.

Like most good love stories, Son of Rambow is based on the fundamental opposition of the odd couple. Here a delinquent schemer and religious straight arrow team up to make a First Blood sequel where the son of Rambo tries to save his father. Matching the concept to the personal weakness and need of the leads, both boys are missing a father at home. The odd couple sets up the main opposition, but the similar need sets up the emotional payoff at the end.

But the key structural decision the writer made in this film has to do with the desire line. The normal desire in a love story is for the characters to want each other. But using the normal structure for these characters would have meant no plot and a sticky sentimental mess. Instead, these boys want to make a movie that will win a short film contest. Notice that this external goal allows the writer to sneak up on the audience, to tell a love story where the payoff is a complete surprise.

One of the big problems a lot of love stories have is lack of plot. That's also the case here. The desire, though effective at setting up the final punch, does flag a bit since it is essentially a stall. To increase the plot in the slow middle of the story, the writer adds outside opponents from each boy's family, along with the older kids at school. This character web is not altogether successful, especially the cool French boy that all the English kids worship. But it does complicate the making of the video enough to justify waiting so long to find out who wins the award.

In the Love Story Class, I talk a lot about how to transcend the form, by twisting the beats so the story pays its dues but also gives the audience something new. Writer Garth Jennings has come up with a unique love story structure through which to express the joys of friendship and the power of the imagination.

Apr 18, 2008

Smart People

Smart People uses one of the fundamental strategies of indie filmmaking, the witty, dialogue-driven comedy. These scripts are cheap to make and "writerly." Ironically the film is anything but well-written. It supports what is perhaps the greatest of all myths about the writer, as the person who provides the dialogue. Real writers know that the game is won or lost in the structure, which is the development of the character through the plot.

Make no mistake. There is some witty dialogue in this film. But because the script lacks character and plot, the dialogue comes across as written lines performed by actors. Let's consider the characters first. The film crosscuts among four important characters. That's already a risky strategy for a short feature like this one, because you simply don't have time for much character definition when you divide 90 minutes by 4. But the problems here go much deeper.

Smart People is first of all a love story between Dennis Quaid's Lawrence and Sarah Jessica Parker's Janet. If Lawrence were essentially a good guy with a few flaws, you wouldn't have to go too deeply into why smart doctor Janet would want to go out with him. But given that Lawrence is a pompous, self-absorbed jerk, you had better get into why in great detail. Not here. Janet is completely opaque, and her only explanation for wanting to be with this guy is that she had a crush on him when she was his student. But he was a jerk then as well.

Ellen Page plays the same overly intellectual, enunciate-every-word-slowly girl she played in Juno. But this time she is also essentially married to her dad, and has a crush on her disgusting, much older uncle even though, as a young Republican, she should know better. Fourth in this pantheon of supposedly smart people is Chuck, played by Thomas Haden Church, whose zen-like, witty one-liners indicate he is the smartest one of all, but inexplicably is no more than a homeless man at the age of 50.

You can't fall back on the notion that smart people screw up relationships just as much as anyone else. You have to provide motive. Because fiction is all about making the characters clear to the audience, even though they are not clear about themselves. Characters don't have to be likeable in a story, but they must at least be understandable. Otherwise they don't seem like real people and the audience doesn't care what happens to them.

Without a strong character foundation, the film's plot has nowhere to go. The writer tries the old indie trick of having lots of really short scenes, so it looks like real life, only wittier. But instead the plot comes across as episodic and contrived, with the mechanics of the writer's struggle becoming increasingly obvious. Somehow everyone ends up where they should be, but I have no idea how.

In the Comedy Class I talk about how important it is to start with the comic structure, not the one-liners. There are eight major sub-structures of comedy, and each plays out a very different set of story beats. If you start with the comic structure that is right for your story, you can twist the beats to make them original and hang the one-liners on a structure that make them even funnier.

If, on the other hand, you start with the one-liners, you end up with a structural mess and get a film that stops being funny after the first ten minutes. It's your choice.

Feb 20, 2008

Definitely, Maybe

I often find that the easiest films from which to learn professional storytelling techniques are the mediocre ones, where both strengths and weaknesses are clear. Certainly that’s the case with Definitely, Maybe, a romantic comedy that offers us all kinds of lessons. This is the story of a man who tells his young daughter about the three most important women in his love life, and she in turn must guess which one is her mother.

The storyteller device is one of the most misused techniques in screenwriting. I talk extensively about proper use of the storyteller in the Advanced Screenwriting Class and in my book, The Anatomy of Story. For a couple of reasons, the storyteller device in Definitely, Maybe is often painful to watch. First, the daughter is 10 going on 30, and few things are more grating than watching phony mature dialogue coming out of the mouth of a child. Second, it is inconceivable that this girl knows nothing about the identity of her mother.

So the love story/mystery frame almost kills the film before it starts. Why then does writer Adam Brooks use it? Because the love story/mystery structure it sets up has so many benefits. The most important has to do with transcending the standard love story. In all my genre classes, I talk about how crucial it is that you not only hit the basic story beats of your form but also twist them in an original way so your script stands above the crowd.

The average Hollywood love story is structured as an action story. There is a single courtship line in which the man chases the woman and eventually wins her through sheer relentless pressure. Besides the fact that this structure is anything but romantic, it has no basis in reality, so the standard love story comes across as a contrived, phony mess.

By combining the love story with the detective form, Brooks can show the audience three women the hero has loved in his life, each in different ways and for different reasons. Instead of tracking a short courtship line, Brooks can expose the ups and downs of a person’s love life over a 10-15 year period.

The main reason most writers stick with the single courtship line is that it’s easy to create a unified story. One lover + short time period = tight script. A story with three lovers over a 15-year period could easily become hopelessly episodic. Which brings us back to the love story/mystery structure and the storyteller frame. Instead of an episodic sequence where one woman follows another, the frame allows Brooks to weave the three lines and bring each woman back over the entire story. And the precocious daughter, who almost kills the film up front, gives the ending an extra emotional payoff when the hero discovers his one best love.

Romantic comedy may be the most difficult of all genres to write well. Which makes it even more imperative that you come up with an original take and invent a unique story structure that will make your romantic comedy one of a kind.